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Six Big Questions Ahead of This Weird-Ass NBA Preseason

How will injured stars like Kevin Durant perform after months of inaction? How will Russell Westbrook look in a Wizards uniform? And what happens if positive COVID-19 tests start increasing? Here’s what we’re looking out for as the warmup games begin this weekend.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After the longest and most jacked-up regular season in league history and a whirlwind offseason conducted at breakneck speed, the 2020-21 NBA preseason will, almost unbelievably, start on Friday. There will be ball; it will be weird. Here are a few things I’ll be keeping an eye on as we move through the preamble and toward what promises to be a delicate dance through the 2020-21 schedule, starting with the biggest question hanging over the whole enterprise:

How severely will COVID-19 affect the state of play?

The NBA announced last week that an initial round of in-market testing of 546 NBA players turned up 48 positive tests. That result was to be expected, given the ongoing prevalence of coronavirus infections across the United States, and given a similar (though smaller) percentage of positive tests when players returned from the league’s hiatus back in June. As the NBA restart progressed, though, with players, coaches, and league personnel subject to the league’s stringent COVID-19 protocols within the Orlando bubble, the number of positive tests dwindled all the way down to zero, enabling the safe completion of the 2019-20 season.

Despite another thick tome of carefully crafted protocols, that almost certainly won’t happen this time around; the NBA has chosen, for a variety of reasons, to burst its bubble.

Teams will play in their home cities—well, not the Raptors, sadly—and travel to others for road games, some of which will feature at least some fans in the stands. (Most teams haven’t announced official plans yet, but the Cavs, Magic, Jazz, Spurs, Grizzlies, Hawks, and Rockets have all said they’re working on allowing fans into their arenas either for the start of the regular season or shortly thereafter.) They will fly on planes, stay in hotels, and eat in one of “at least three approved restaurants in each market.” They will return home and try to navigate the pandemic without getting sick out in the world, just like the rest of us. Judging by the way the past nine months have unfolded in the country—and, perhaps more materially, by how the past few months have gone in the NFL and college football—they won’t all be successful.

More positive tests will come, resulting in extended periods of isolation before a return to activity. If multiple players on a team test positive, it will likely lead to the postponement of games and wreak havoc on the league schedule—a concern the league has tried to prepare for by releasing only the first half of the 72-game schedule, and building in a buffer period to potentially make up missed games before continuing. That’s one argument for expanding rosters, although adding 14th and 15th men can do only so much; if a superstar has to miss several weeks’ worth of games, it could completely derail a team’s season.

There are still unknowns about how COVID-19 impacts an individual’s body in the short and long term. There’s no guarantee that a player who is symptomatic will be back to their old self after two weeks away: Magic center Mo Bamba, for example, is still “a ways away” from playing after contracting COVID-19 six months ago.

The Warriors delayed the opening of their training camp after a pair of players, reportedly All-Star forward Draymond Green and no. 2 draft pick James Wiseman, tested positive. The Trail Blazers had to close their practice facility last weekend after three members of the organization tested positive. Those delays and shutdowns are unlikely to be the last ones. The league is threatening severe sanctions for protocol violations, but in a non-bubble environment, things could go sideways even if everyone’s following the rules. Adam Silver and Co. can control only so much.

As was the case in the summer restart, the new protocols don’t specify how many positive tests leaguewide or how wide an outbreak within a team would trigger a shutdown. Barring something like local health officials in NBA markets putting a stop to indoor gatherings, league policy says that the “occurrence of independent cases or a small or otherwise expected number of COVID-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the 2020-21 season.” With billions in revenues on the line, the NBA and its partners are intent on forging ahead; this preseason, then, serves as something of a trial run for how the league, players, and teams will not only handle the protocols for this season, but also how they deal with the fallout when things go badly. That could wind up playing a larger role in determining who wins the 2021 title than any offseason signing or midseason trade.

How will returning stars look in their first action in ages?

It remains to be seen how much court time the league’s marquee talent—especially those who logged time and a half in the bubble—will see during the preseason. But the exhibition slate represents the first chance for an awful lot of notable names to knock off an awful lot of rust before the games start to count—and for us to get a window into what their teams might look like in the year ahead.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving: Seventeen months after they swung for the fences, the Nets finally get to see whether they hit a home run by maxing out KD and Kyrie. How closely will Durant, some 550 days removed from rupturing his right Achilles tendon, resemble the player who might have been the best in the world before his injury? How crisp will Irving, who made just 20 appearances in a rocky first season in Brooklyn, be after more than 10 months on the shelf following season-ending shoulder surgery?

Perhaps most importantly: How smoothly will the two All-NBA creators and shot-makers mesh together in what’s expected to be a top-five attack under the guidance of new head coach Steve Nash and new offensive coordinator Mike D’Antoni? If Durant looks like his old self—or even just an older dude still plenty able to rise and fire—and Irving is ready to both hit the ground running and cede space and possessions for KD to operate, Brooklyn might be a bona fide championship contender for the first time. If it looks like there are a larger-than-anticipated number of kinks to work out, though, the Nets—already one of the league’s most intriguing teams given their dramatic shifts in the past year and a half—could become an even more fascinating and combustible chemistry experiment.

John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins: It’s not the no. 1 issue at Toyota Center these days, but there’s a similar return story to monitor in Houston. Yes, everything about the Rockets’ long-term outlook hinges on the resolution of the James Harden saga, but in the interim, how much the former Kentucky teammates and longtime pals can contribute after their own lengthy layoffs could go a long way toward determining whether the Rockets are able to stay afloat in a brutal Western Conference playoff race.

Thanks to surgery to remove a bone spur lodged in his left Achilles tendon, and a subsequent rupture of that tendon after “slipping and falling in his home,” Wall hasn’t played in a staggering 23 months. At his best—which, if we’re being honest, we haven’t seen in more than three and a half years—Wall was one of the sport’s most breathtaking offensive talents, a blur with the ball who could slither through every crack in a defense and create high-percentage shots for teammates like few other initiators in the league. Is that guy still in there after all the injuries and time away?

Cousins has had a similarly brutal run—a torn Achilles, torn quadriceps tendon, and torn ACL, all in the span of 19 months. He showed flashes during his brief run in Golden State of shifting into a new phase of his career as a complementary piece who could help a good team; if he’s healthy and up to it, Boogie could pair with top free-agent signing Christian Wood to give new head coach Stephen Silas two skilled big men who can stretch the floor, make plays off the bounce and with the pass, and add variety and vigor to the Houston offense. Whether that’s enough to renew Harden’s interest in sticking around is anybody’s guess. It’d be pretty cool to watch, though.

Some others to watch:

  • We expect Stephen Curry to be mostly fine more than a year after breaking his hand, but we’ve barely seen him since the 2019 Finals, and with Klay Thompson once again unavailable, he’ll be asked to shoulder an even larger load than ever for the Warriors, who are intent on returning to the playoff conversation.
  • The Wolves’ chances of doing the same likely rest on Karl-Anthony Towns’s taking another leap after the wrist injury that sidelined him before the All-Star break. (That, sadly, isn’t the most significant pain KAT has dealt with in the past nine months.)
  • The Pistons, fresh off one of the weirder offseasons in the league, bring back Blake Griffin after a year on ice following his second knee surgery in an eight-month span.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic, a huge part of the Jazz’s hoped-for ascent to title contention, comes back after the wrist surgery that kept him out of the bubble.
  • Victor Oladipo played in Orlando, but didn’t look quite like his All-Star self as he continued to work his way back from his torn quadriceps tendon; his readiness to return to form could speak volumes about Indiana’s chances of rising up the Eastern standings.

The preseason games themselves don’t matter much. How those stars look in their minutes, though, might wind up mattering a great deal.

Whither the new-look Wizards?

These things are true, simultaneously:

  1. Only three players ever have a higher career usage rate than Russell Westbrook;
  2. Westbrook has finished in the top 10 in total field goal attempts nine times in the past 10 seasons;
  3. Westbrook’s teammates have finished in the top three in points per game six times in those nine seasons;
  4. Westbrook’s teams have finished with top-seven offenses in five of those six seasons.

Yes, Westbrook plays a high-usage, ball-dominant, demanding brand of basketball that can minimize the potential contributions of teammates boxed into more circumscribed roles. (See: Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.) But Westbrook’s presence, maximalist as it is, does not in and of itself preclude excellent players from playing excellently, and transcendent offensive talents from expressing themselves in tremendously productive ways.

Which is to say: I’m wondering if Bradley Beal’s about to lead the league in scoring this season.

You’ll hear no argument from me about Westbrook-for-Wall being a deal that smacked of desperation. But Beal averaged 30.5 points per game last season despite dealing with single-minded, laser-focused attention from defenses that didn’t have to worry about any other Washington player consistently making them pay off the dribble and at the rim; the 2019-20 Wiz gave 3,200 point guard minutes to Ish Smith, Isaiah Thomas, and Shabazz Napier. If fully rehabbed and healthy, Wall might have once again been a dynamic playmaking complement to this version of Beal, but that’s a mighty big “if.” Before the hiatus, Westbrook was dicing up defenses when playing in five-out sets flanked by shooters. That version of Westbrook—the one before he contracted COVID-19, and strained his quad—seems like a substantially better bet to make defenses think twice about loading up on Beal. That could be a recipe for an awful lot of points … and maybe even some wins.

If all goes well, pairing Beal and Westbrook with returning flamethrower Davis Bertans, a burgeoning shooter at the 5 in Thomas Bryant, and skilled young forwards Rui Hachimura and rookie Deni Avdija might give the Wizards a shot at their second top-10 offense this decade; if it goes, like, really well, they might even have an outside chance at their first top-five unit since 2006. Whether such an attack can translate into consistent success will depend largely on whether the Wiz can actually stop anybody—a massive question for a bottom-five defense two years running. But hope springs eternal in the preseason; let’s live, for now, in the warm glow of the notion that this partnership will produce both fun and function in D.C.

2020-21 Washington Wizards Content Day Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

How will the Hawks’ rotation shake out?

Atlanta was one of the most active and interesting teams of the abbreviated offseason, spending big on veteran talent in an attempt to kick-start a sputtering rebuild and return to the playoffs. Adding a pair of sharpshooting three-level scorers like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari should supercharge the offense around All-Star point guard Trae Young. Bringing in a genius passer and steadying hand like Rajon Rondo should mitigate the fallout when Young goes to the bench. Adding rim protectors Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu and perimeter-defending menace Kris Dunn could spark significant improvement for a team that’s ranked in the bottom five in points allowed per possession for three consecutive seasons.

There’s a lot to like here—and also a lot of questions to answer.

John Collins, lest we forget and in spite of all the speculation, is still a Hawk. Is he still Atlanta’s starting power forward, with Gallinari becoming a $20 million-a-year sixth man? Or is the 32-year-old Italian going to bump down to the 3, displacing recent lottery picks De’Andre Hunter (who started 62 of 63 games played as a rookie) and Cam Reddish (34 of 58)? Bogdanovic’s arrival slid Kevin Huerter out of the starting five; how much will the presence of Rondo and Dunn impact the Huerter’s minutes and playmaking opportunities? A lot of draftniks thought Okongwu, not Wiseman, might be the best big man in the 2020 draft—if Atlanta keeps all the vets ahead of him, how long might it be before he gets an opportunity to prove whether they were right?

Head coach Lloyd Pierce has plenty of talent as he hunts for the Hawks’ first postseason berth in four years. Finding out how he plans to deploy it should be pretty fascinating.

Starting lineup intrigue

There’s plenty of it:

  • After finishing second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season—to new teammate Montrezl Harrell—Dennis Schröder said at the start of training camp that he expected to be a starter with the defending champion Lakers. Head coach Frank Vogel said it was “way too soon” to decide on that, but life comes at you exceptionally fast in the NBA, especially right now. Will Vogel stick to a more conservative script, with veterans Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope slotting in for the departed JaVale McGee, Danny Green, and Avery Bradley alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and Schröder and Harrell forming a dynamic tandem off the bench? Or might Vogel decide to spice things up, insert the electric German point guard into the first five, and see what happens?
  • Following their run to the Western Conference finals, the Nuggets’ only sure-thing starters are All-NBA center Nikola Jokic and bubble superstar Jamal Murray. Who fills in the three slots between them? Will Barton made 58 starts on the wing last season before missing the entire bubble with knee soreness, and said in camp that “I think it’s clear cut who I am in this league. I am a starter.” Gary Harris battled woeful shooting and offensive inconsistency, but remains Denver’s best perimeter defender and one of Jokic’s favorite targets. The Nuggets’ first-round series against Utah turned around once Harris came back to start checking the wreathed-in-flames Donovan Mitchell. Michael Porter Jr. is the swing piece, the Nuggets’ best chance at a third elite talent to pair with Jokic and Murray, but is also the biggest defensive question mark in the bunch. Paul Millsap is back, and proved at times during the postseason he can still be pivotal, but is he a better game-in, game-out option at the 4 than new arrival JaMychal Green? Michael Malone has all the pieces he needs to mount another deep postseason run in Denver. How will he put them together?
  • Similarly: Who will Erik Spoelstra plug in around bubble god Jimmy Butler and newly maxed-out star center Bam Adebayo in Miami? Point guard Kendrick Nunn started all 67 regular season games he appeared in on his way to a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting; once the playoffs started, though, he gave way to Goran Dragic, who sparkled as Miami’s leading scorer through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Like Nunn, Meyers Leonard was a regular-season starting fixture before spraining his ankle in early February, but by the time the Heat opened play in the bubble, Spoelstra had bumped Bam to center and inserted Jae Crowder at the 4, prioritizing shooting and defensive versatility over size in a small-ball look that paid huge dividends. Will Spoelstra stick with small ball, this time with Andre Iguodala or new arrival Moe Harkless at the 4? Or will he go back to what worked during the 2019-20 regular season, put Leonard back in the lineup to eat innings, and save the Heat’s final-form evolution for when they might need it most?
  • Speaking of centers: Who will Steve Kerr start in the middle in Golden State? You don’t generally take a dude second overall just to sit him, and it stands to reason that Wiseman’s development might benefit from playing alongside Curry and Green more than coming off the bench in an unsettled second unit. Then again, maybe starting a known quantity like Kevon Looney, or even pleasant 2019-20 surprise Marquese Chriss, better serves the immediate goal of winning while you have Curry and Green healthy and still in their primes. So who wins out? You guessed it: Anderson Varejão, somehow. (Another positional battle in the middle worth watching: whether Nash opts for veteran superstar friend/rim runner/beefy interior defender DeAndre Jordan or younger ascendant talent Jarrett Allen in Brooklyn.)
  • The Hornets! Gordon Hayward didn’t get $120 million to come off the bench, but how will the lineup fill in around him? Coach James Borrego is making no bones about his desire to go small this season: “I imagine a lot of minutes for P.J. Washington at the 5—a lot,” he recently told reporters, with Miles Bridges sliding up to power forward in a decidedly sub-6-foot-8 frontcourt. He might start the season with Cody Zeller in the middle, but if that look stagnates, how long will it be before Borrego decides to get weird? And in the backcourt, will the arrival of LaMelo Ball send Devonte’ Graham (who went from anonymity to averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 assists per game last season) or Terry Rozier (the Hornets’ best returning 3-point shooter and second-highest-paid player) to the bench? Is there any universe in which the no. 3 pick—who has the potential to be a game-tilting playmaker, but whose route to the NBA has been, shall we say, circuitous—begins his NBA career as a Charlotte observer? (Someone hide LaVar’s phone.)

What does “no restrictions” Zion look like?

Here’s a quick reminder of what Zion Williamson did last preseason, in case you haven’t said “Oh, shit” enough today:

The no. 1 pick in the 2019 draft turned in one of the most eye-popping and productive exhibition slates in recent memory, leaving hoop observers everywhere salivating at the prospect of getting to see him carry that momentum into the regular season. And then: the meniscus, and the wait.

When Williamson finally debuted in late January, he was still a sensation—man, remember that fourth quarter against the Spurs?—but he was also a 19-year-old rookie coming off three months on the shelf, learning to trust his surgically repaired knee on the fly, and figuring out how to play in the NBA in the heat of a playoff chase. He ran aground in the restart, and that was probably to be expected, given another monthslong layoff and being limited to short “bursts” of playing time after missing the opportunity to “ramp up” to full fitness. His performance before that—22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in 27.8 minutes per game—sort of beggared belief.

Now, Zion enters the 2020-21 campaign with a new head coach to show him the defensive ropes, and with the backing of an organization that’s evidently unwilling to slap any positional or role labels on him. (Though I will admit: Seeing David Griffin talk about Zion at the 3 made me think of when Kurt Rambis mused about whether 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis might best be used as a small forward. Sometimes the best move is just to put the center-sized/shaped dude at center, you know?) He’ll come back from his first offseason as a pro with the benefit of a little bit of seasoning, (hopefully) a little bit of extra conditioning work in the rearview mirror, and—from the sound of things—no physical impediments to worry about:

If Williamson was evoking Shaq before he was 100 percent healthy, in top shape, or had much of an idea what he was supposed to be doing on the court ... how’s he going to look once everything is actually right? I’m not sure my brain can conjure up an image that destructive. I’m sure as hell ready to find out, though—and to see how far a no-limit Zion (man, does this make me want to see him outfitted with a jewel-encrusted tank necklace) might carry a Pelicans team trying to make some noise now even as it builds toward a brighter future.