After a frenetic two and a half years, featuring restarts and accelerated seasons and replacement players, the NBA finally took a much-needed break this summer. The news cycle never fully stopped, thanks in large part to Kevin Durant’s futile trade demand, yet the league managed to slow down long enough for us to consider picking up an actual hobby. (That offer was respectfully declined.)
But this weekend’s media days for teams playing overseas warmups marked the official opening of the 2022-23 season, with the rest of the league to follow this week. As we wait for injury updates and first looks at notable players in new situations, and literally any details about last week’s ugly story in Boston, here’s a look at the seven biggest questions across the NBA:
1. The Los Angeles Lakers know they need to trade Russell Westbrook, right?
When LeBron James signed an extension with the Lakers in mid-August, it seemed as though both parties were finally on the same page about their surly $47 million friend. Rather than defaulting to his usual playbook and delaying his next decision as a leverage play, James opted into the franchise’s vision for the future, or at least for the next two years. In turn, the Lakers appeared willing to entertain the idea of dealing their precious few future draft picks, and even traded Talen Horton-Tucker, a Klutch made man, for longtime Westbrook foil Patrick Beverley—the equivalent of adopting a wolverine to deal with the boa constrictor camping out in your garage.
But over a month later, the vibe emanating from Laker Land regarding the encore of the Russ experience is downright optimistic. Maybe new coach Darvin Ham can reach Russ in ways Frank Vogel couldn’t. Maybe injuries were the real issue. Maybe they’re better off playing out the season and preserving their 2023 cap space, perhaps for Kyrie Irving. Maybe Russ and Pat Bev can be friends! Owner Jeanie Buss even recently called Westbrook the Lakers’ best player last season … only to later walk back her description to “consistent.”
The problem with this thinking, of course, is reality. Westbrook was a disaster last season, no matter who he played with. And the prize for crawling through another season of shit with him is hardly lavish, and ultimately still theoretical: In addition to Irving—who played about as often as Westbrook played well last season—a recent Athletic story mentioned Khris Middleton, Fred VanVleet, and Andrew Wiggins as potential targets. Is the mere chance at signing one of those recent champions away from their current high-functioning organizations worth hindering whatever opportunity you have to contend right now, for what will be James’s age-38 season?
The prevailing wisdom of the Lakers’ bubble title was that LeBron and Anthony Davis were the league’s most dominant force, the king and queen on the chessboard. The past two seasons have undercut that notion, but that basic blueprint is still a better option than what most teams can come up with. Better health is essential, as is Davis cutting back on the amount of Gut Milk he’s been chugging as a pre-workout, but the duo also needs a supporting cast that can be even adequate. That’s why the only logical path forward is to abandon all hope (or posturing?) of a Westbrook renaissance and instead use his expiring contract as flotsam in a deal for quality role players—whether that’s Buddy Hield and Myles Turner or some other combination of veterans who can shoot outside of 10 feet.
Speaking of which …
2. Which contenders will save the rest of the Utah Jazz’s win-now vets?
With the pillars of the past half-decade of Jazz basketball gone, Danny Ainge has become the NBA’s Maxxinista, selling brand-name role players at low, low prices. The latest bargain came last Thursday, when Utah dealt Bojan Bogdanovic to Detroit for … uh, a couple million in savings? A chance for Ainge to reunite with noted hat enthusiast Kelly Olynyk? Still trying to figure that one out, but the overall message is clear: The Jazz want to be very bad, and anyone who helps them be less bad is very available.
That list includes: Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Rudy Gay, and maybe even new additions like Malik Beasley and Lauri Markkanen. None of those players will swing the title race, but they’re all helpful in the right situation—Clarkson, for instance, could give Milwaukee’s bench some on-the-ball juice (perhaps in a deal for Serge Ibaka’s contract once he’s eligible to be traded, plus a future second or two?).
We might not hear much about Utah, the basketball team, once the season gets underway, but it holds almost all the keys to any last-minute roster tweaks until then.
3. Which Brooklyn Nets stars will show up—physically, spiritually, metaphorically?
No one is looking forward to this Nets season—least of all, it seems, the guy who’s paying for it. But even after a really fun monthslong pissing contest between Kevin Durant and ownership, and … whatever the hell is going on with Kyrie, at all times, the Nets might still be kind of incredible?
It may be hard to remember, but before … [gestures broadly at everything], Brooklyn seemed unstoppable. And while this season’s team may not have the same historic ceiling after losing James Harden, the roster still looks formidable on paper. Durant made second-team All-NBA last season despite missing a third of the season. Irving scored 30 or more in over a third of his 29 regular-season games, including nights with 50 and 60 in the span of one week. Ben Simmons was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year the last time he played. Seth Curry and Joe Harris are two of the four best 3-point shooters in NBA history.
The Nets could be great … but only if everyone can set aside their many conflicts.
On the bright side, Simmons was back in public last week, reflecting on many of the sore subjects he’s avoided for more than a year. On the repugnant side, Irving recently shared an old clip from Alex Jones, suggesting that he’s still relying on conspiratorial mumbo jumbo he found on YouTube to guide his career choices.
There’s virtually no chance that this Nets season will go smoothly; on the basketball side alone, they still need more help in the frontcourt and are counting on several players who underwent offseason surgery. But if all of the principals show up engaged in the on-court product, there’s a chance they might be pretty damn good, too.
4. Where do the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns go from here?
While punishment has been meted out for the transgressions of Ime Udoka and Robert Sarver, the members of both the Celtics and Suns organizations are now left to manage the fallout. That includes players and coaches, yes, but also rank-and-file employees, some of whom last week were subjected to, as Brad Stevens put it, “Twitter speculation and rampant bullshit.”
The Suns may be accustomed to the burden, having spent all of last season under investigation by the NBA, while Sarver continued on as owner. But even though Sarver has yet to sell his majority stake in the franchise, his ouster, one staffer told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, is a relief: “I’m beyond happy, I’m empowered and I’m motivated,” they said, while also pointing to a need to still root out “men in that organization still in power who upheld this culture.”
The Celtics, however, seem a long way away from closure. A Friday press conference revealed virtually no information about what led to the one-year suspension of Boston’s head coach, aside from the fact that Udoka committed a “volume of violations.” Five days after the first vaguely worded report, there have been more insinuations that something troubling occurred than basic details of what happened.
5. Which injured stars are ready to return, and when?
As enjoyable as it is to see players put on zany headgear or listen to every coach in the league pretend like their team is going to run more this season, media day is most useful as an accounting for a roster’s past few months. Sometimes, the all-day press conferences uncover important new hobbies, like a player’s newfound love of marmosets, but more often they reveal new injuries, or new information about old injuries.
The updates started to trickle in before players, coaches, and executives hit the dais: Robert Williams III had a second surgery to his knee, six months after the first one; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sprained an MCL; Lonzo Ball had another knee surgery; Markelle Fultz has a broken toe; and the Spurs’ Keldon Johnson has a dislocated shoulder. On a more positive note, Kawhi Leonard has been cleared for five-on-five, and appears to have taken leg day very seriously in his off time.
But aside from Leonard, whose robust thighs may hold the key to the Western Conference, updates to several critical figures in the 2023 title are still to come: When will we see Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in Denver? Does Harden’s hamstring look as spry as it did in shirtless, suspiciously filtered summer workout photos? What’s Zion Williamson’s status after missing all of last season? (More on that in a second.) And what sort of load management will each require when they do return?
No one wins a title in preseason, but the information we get this week will likely help dictate the shape of the season.
6. How does Zion fit on the Playoff Pelicans?
Last year’s media day felt more like a last stand for Pelicans leadership. After a string of questionable offseason moves and reports indicating long-simmering discontent from their former no. 1 pick, vice president of basketball operations David Griffin revealed that Zion had surgery to repair a broken foot. Despite the curious suggestion that Williamson could be back for the start of the season, it was clear the Pelicans would be hard-pressed to avoid a fourth straight losing season, and the personnel changes that might follow.
New Orleans never did make it over .500, but it did show enough spunk (and sneakiness) after trading for CJ McCollum to not only make the play-in tournament, but blow past the Spurs and the Clippers to graduate to the big-boy playoffs and then push the top-seeded Suns to six games. The magical run does bear some caveats: a sample size of only 26 regular-season games, during which it boasted the seventh-best net rating; the Clippers and Suns losing their top scorers either before or during their matchups. But for three months, the Pelicans displayed a verve that even really good teams would struggle to replicate, and a group of young, take-no-shit defenders who flustered even the Point God.
The question now is how Zion fits into what’s been built in his absence. Adding a point-center who can barnstorm through defenses like Derrick Henry and last shot 61 percent from the floor is one of those good problems. But it remains to be seen whether second-year coach Willie Green can find enough touches for three players pushing 30 in usage rate in McCollum, Williamson, and Brandon Ingram, or get enough defense on the floor to compensate for what the trio lacks on that end.
Unlike last year, the Pelicans enter training camp feeling confident that they’ve found something; according to Griffin, “These games will be the first time you can judge us as a team that is supposed to win basketball games.” But whether that something is anything more than a fun young upstart rests on a healthy, reengaged Zion and how the franchise implements him.
7. Will any of this offseason’s big spenders have buyer’s remorse?
After watching their big-market counterparts dig deep into their draft treasuries to land stars and rocket up the standings, the little guys got in on the action this offseason. In total, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Minnesota coughed up the rights to 15 first-round picks, along with several other recent first-rounders and young players, in order to land Dejounte Murray, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert.
All three teams figure to be better next season, and maybe that’s all that matters; “asset accumulation” and “financial flexibility” have been so fetishized since the dawn of Sam Hinkie that it’s refreshing to see a front office say to hell with the blog boys and go for the gusto. But with the debt collectors looming, the pressure will be on to be good immediately. Are all three new additions capable of vaulting their new teams from the play-in to a top-six spot in their conferences?
The Cavaliers and Timberwolves have built-in buffers in their defenses. Cleveland’s modern twin-towers approach propelled it to a top-five defense, and the East’s sixth-best record, last season until Jarrett Allen’s injury, and will likely allow Mitchell to play to his strengths, juicing a Cleveland offense in need of creation outside of Darius Garland. Minnesota, meanwhile, managed to climb into the league’s top half on defense after being mired near the bottom for nearly a decade, and is a near lock to keep improving after importing a three-time Defensive Player of the Year with a proven regular-season track record.
That leaves Murray. The former Spurs guard is a long, intuitive defender who led the NBA in steals last season, but he’s not quite a one-on-one stopper, and is thus unlikely to single-handedly turn around the Hawks’ long-suffering defense. Maybe Murray’s greatest value will come from what he does for Trae Young, both in affording him more off-ball opportunities and by allowing him to rest without fear of the offense cratering. Either way, he seems to have the toughest path to becoming the agent of change his new team needs to hang with the NBA’s major players.