NBA Preview: 7 Questions and Answers for the 2017-18 Season
As we embark on the 2017-18 NBA season, here are 7 intriguing questions for how the year will play out, along with my answers.
1Q: How will stars fit on their new teams?
A: Probably a mixed bag.
Although calling Melo a superstar at this point in his career is highly questionable, let’s start with the Thunder and their two huge additions that came at shockingly little cost. Paul George should fit very well with this team because he is so versatile, can play off the ball well, should be content with being a sidekick to Russ, and can play great D on the wing. There’s rightfully more skepticism regarding Hoodie Melo, because if he’s that version of himself, he probably will struggle to mesh with Russ and George due to his ball stopping and selfish ways. However, if Olympic Melo shows up, then the Thunder offense can really take off with him excelling at spotting up, making quicker moves with the ball, being a more willing passer, and creating and hitting tough shots when the offense bogs down. Then on the other end of the court perhaps he will even actually try reasonably hard, but even if that happens, he and Russ will likely be defensive weaknesses for OKC, thankfully for them, Adams, Roberson, and George all play well above to well above average defense. I am skeptical that Olympic Melo will make his first extended NBA appearance, though.
Chris Paul joining fellow point guard James Harden is certainly an interesting combination, and one that may be unique in the history of the league. Although Harden just transitioned to the point last year, he excelled in the role and had another MVP caliber year while running Mike D’Antoni’s fast paced offense that focusing on shots at the rim and behind the arc. Insert CP3, who is also an elite point guard, one of the best true point guards the league has even seen, and like Harden, is very ball dominant, but unlike Harden and counter to the preferred style of D’Antoni and GM Daryl Morey, is a very methodical point guard that likes to take a lot of mid-range shots. So how is Paul going to mesh with Harden and the system? Well for one, he and James are going to have to take a step or two back and learn, or in Harden’s case, re-learn (remember his OKC days?) how to play off the ball more. That will be more challenging for Paul since he has always been the clear conductor of the offense, but he chose to go to Houston so it should be assumed that he is willing to reduce his role and that he feels like he can play well off the ball. CP3 has an extremely high basketball IQ and is a very good spot up 3 point shooter, so those are advantages along with the fact that while both he and Harden are healthy, they should always have an elite point guard on the floor. One issue is the anticipated bumps in the road in the relationships between the two ball dominant guards as well as between Paul and his coach, who has been known to clash with those that don’t adapt to his system.
The Celtics brought in two stars in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. The former is an easy fit due to his versatile game on the wing being easy to fit into most offenses and then there’s the familiarity with Coach Brad Stevens from their college days. In the case of the latter, I have my reservations due to Kyrie never really showing that he is a true point guard, nor has he ever shown a willingness to commit to the defensive end. On the other hand, the player Kyrie is replacing had similar deficiencies even if his defensive issues were more related to size than commitment. Kyrie has shown signs that he may be more committed to passing the ball, but I am in wait and see mode with that. Regardless, he should come close to replacing what Isaiah Thomas gave them last year.
Speaking of Thomas, health is clearly the big question mark with him as that hip injury is one that does not inspire confidence in a full recovery. If he does recover well though, he should be able to provide much of what Kyrie did for the Cavs last year. He won’t finish at the basket quite as often, but he has actually shown the ability to get to the line a fair amount more often, where he shot 91% last year. The Cavs though may have a lot of issues dealing with guards on the defensive end as Thomas and new additions Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade are poor on that end.
Lastly, let’s talk about Dwight Howard.
2Q: Will anyone challenge the Cavs in the East?
A: Probably not.
This goes back to the health of Isaiah Thomas. If healthy, the Cavs should once again be the class of the East and LeBron will likely return to the finals for the 8th straight time. They do have some other potential chinks in the armor though as LeBron could start to truly decline at any point now, Wade and Rose have their aforementioned defensive issues, but also don’t fit well with the starting offense due to their lack of 3pt shooting. Starting both of them is a curious decision that is somewhat made up for by starting Love at the 5 along with James and key new addition Jae Crowder. However, that starting lineup is going to have some serious defensive problems even when they are relative engaged since they will have poor defense against guards and will lack any rim protection when those guards break down the defense. One positive for the Cavs besides that they got better on paper with the Kyrie trade, is this is possibly the deepest team LeBron has played on, at least when Thomas returns, which should take a slight burden off his shoulders.
As far as Eastern contenders, the Celtics have the most upside with the strong trio of Hayward, Irving, and Horford, plus they have some other talented players to go with a great coach, but youth, decreased depth, and a lack of experience playing together limit the mid-range expectation for this club. Meanwhile, the Wizards backcourt should continue to get even better and they pushed Boston to the max last year, so they will factor into the picture again. The Raptors are another talented team, but they now have an established history of underperforming in the playoffs, which has to greatly reduce confidence in their playoff outlook. Lastly, the Bucks have a lot of potential, and Antetokounmpo should elevate his game even further this year, but a lack of experience and outside shooting will probably prevent them from legitimately contending just yet. So it is hard to picture anyone seriously challenging the Cavs in the postseason if Cleveland is healthy, unless someone makes a big move, maybe for DeMarcus Cousins.
3Q: Who will be the second best team out West?
Despite my expectation of some occasional rough sailing with CP3 meshing with Harden and D’Antoni, that duo should be great and Houston will hit an insane amount of 3’s. I would not be surprised if they aren’t quite as good come playoff time, though, with some of their players and their coach having some past postseason issues and even more importantly, the negative effects for the Rockets that come with the game slowing down and defenses becoming more dialed in.
The Thunder are the next strongest contender in the West since their offense should join their defense in the top 10 in the league as it becomes much more talented and diversified compared to last year. The potential fit issues along with weaker depth may hinder their chances, though, as will Roberson’s inability to draw defensive attention. It’s just too bad that they went into the tax to creat this super team rather than to retain the one featured above.
The Spurs are still the Spurs, but their talent remained static while the aforementioned teams improved so as dangerous as it is to bet against Pop and the Spurs, I think they may be leapfrogged, at least in the regular season.
4Q: Who will win the MVP award?
A: Kawhi Leonard
Despite feeling the Spurs will finish 4th in the West, they will still likely win 55+ games and Kawhi will be the only player even close to superstar status on the team; plus, he’s the best two way player in the association. That will be huge for the narrative against stars such as Durant, Curry, Harden, and Westbrook, all of whom will be knocked down for the help they receive from their star teammates . Voter fatigue may come into play for many of those guys as well.
Then there’s LeBron, Anthony Davis, and the Greek Freak. LeBron, at least if he and the Cavs play it smart, won’t play enough to beat out Leonard, even though Pop will rest him some too. Anthony Davis’ team probably won’t win enough in the stacked West to garner enough MVP support and he’s prone to injury. The biggest challenger to Kawhi will likely reside in Milwaukee, by way of Greece. Giannis, assuming health, will play a lot of minutes and will probably take his game up another notch in his age 23 season considering his work ethic and maturity are considered off the charts. The jump shot is the key in unlocking even more of his potential. Ultimately, I expect the Bucks to fall 10+ wins short of the Spurs, which will be enough to make up for any additional minutes Antetokounmpo has.
Sleeper: Karl-Anthony Towns who is currently 50-1. If he comes close to realizing his defensive potential and the Wolves win 50+ games, he has a chance because he is so damn good on offense.
5Q: Will anyone establish themselves as a likely heir apparent to the Warriors?
A: Outlook fuzzy, ask again later.
The team with the best chance at becoming the next super team is probably Boston because they have such a great mixture of current stars (Hayward, Irving, Horford), good young talent (Tatum, Brown, Smart), and they still have a collection of good picks. If Tatum for instance develops into a star, they could become a strong title contender in the near future when Golden State is potentially declining. They do lack a true superstar, but Irving has proven that he is very capable of being a top scorer in the postseason.
There’s also the Bucks led by the aforementioned Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as a good young supporting core in Middleton, Parker, and Brogdon. The key with Milwaukee is Thon Maker. This 20 year old (well, maybe) came into the league very raw and the Bucks were made fun of for drafting him where they did, but I expect they will have the last laugh as the athletic 7’1 player has already shown great promise and shot 38% from 3 as a rookie. He is also taking after Giannis in terms of work ethic and attitude, which is tremendous for his and the team’s future. He and Giannis have the potential to be a fearsome duo in all facets of the game due to their combination of length, athleticism, skill, and drive.
There is one other team that really intrigues me for a few years down the road. My belief in them can be summed up in three words: Trust the Process. Health is ofcourse the biggest X factor with the Sixers, but if that works out for them, they could have the best player in the league in a few years in Embid, along with a dynamic point forward in Ben Simmons, a very good point guard in Markelle Fultz, and whatever free agent(s) they can lure with their cap money that they have carved out going forward. There has been a lot of speculation of LeBron loving LA, but if Embid and Simmons stay healthy this year and meet or exceed expectations, the smart move might be to go to The City of Brotherly Love.
That brings up the Lakers who make the list because they have a good shot at LeBron, but also because Lonzo Ball could become an elite point guard within the next few years and they have some other intriguing pieces along with cap money (plus it’s the Lakers) that could lure another top free agent along with James.
Lastly, there’s the team that beat the Warriors two years and still has LeBron. They are massive underdogs to the Warriors as is, and their future outlook is not as promising, so it doesn’t seem like they should occupy space under this question. However, they did land a desirable pick in the Kyrie trade, and that pick could potentially be flipped for something that puts Cleveland on a more level playing ground with the Warriors. Perhaps, they trade the pick and Tristian Thompson for DeMarcus Cousins. Boogie!!!!!!! That would be a risky deal considering Cousins attitude issues, but considering what they are up against, they would be foolish to throw away their shot if such an opportunity arose.
6Q: Can anyone actually beat the Warriors?
Of course that comes with the usual caveat that injuries can change the postseason outlook the chances are not literally zero percent. If healthy, this Warriors team should actually be better than last year’s juggernaut, perhaps even by a decent margin. This will be year two of KD’s integration into the Warriors system, so even though he is easier to fit onto a roster than the vast majority of superstars and his transition to Golden State was relatively seamless last year, there should be improved synergy in his second year. Beyond that, they actually improved their roster with the additions of two solid role players that will hit a bunch of open threes in Nick Young and Omri Casspi, and fleeced the Bulls by buying Jordan Bell, who has been compared to Draymond Green.
Other than potential injuries, the only roadblocks that will likely keep this team from pushing their own regular season wins record will be complacency and more importantly, DNP – Rest showing up next to key player’s names in the box score. After this year, this team should have a great case for being the best of all-time over a four year stretch as well as the best team in any given season.
On top of that, no other team is close to being on the Warriors level. There are multiple teams that appear to be championship caliber teams (Cleveland, Houston, OKC, and maybe San Antonio and Boston), and I would argue that some of those teams, especially the first two, have the ability to be better than quite a few teams that have won titles, but they aren’t in the best of all time conversation, and that’s the level the Warriors are at.
7Q: Considering the answer to the previous question, should anyone care about the NBA this season?
A: Yes, for the following reasons:
First off, while the championship winner is not typically such a given in any sport, people who argue that there is no point in watching the NBA tend to religiously follow their favorite teams in other sports, despite knowing that those teams sometimes have no chance at winning. My fellow Orioles fans know this all too well as we endured 14 consecutive losing seasons. Most of us continued to watch MLB not because of the uncertainty of who would win the World Series; instead, we were watching a team we knew had no chance simply because it was our team. I could say the same about those of us who have been watching Maryland basketball post title and football at any point in my life. So if you don’t have a team, maybe try to adopt one, but if not, at least recognize that your lack of a team is a big reason for your apathy towards the league rather than the typical stereotypes that get thrown around.
Speaking of negative NBA stereotypes, many of them aren’t founded in reality. NBA teams actually do try on defense and play it well, much better so than the glory days of the 80’s for example. Players are also generally rather unselfish and are willing and able passers. Those two things actually have a symbiotic relationship because as defenses became better through increased effort and better defensive schemes (think Tom Thibodeau) that made it harder for isolation offense and hero ball to thrive, teams had to adapt on offense by incorporating more ball movement and creating more space on the court to make it more difficult for help defense to impede the scoring opportunities. So right now, the NBA typically treats us to fast paced action, remarkable athleticism and skill (fewer lumbering centers play a part in that), lots of ball movement (or at least purposeful ISO ball) that often leads to setting up others for good shots like corner 3’s and lobs, and competitive defenses.
Moving on from defending the NBA against stereotypes, another thing in the league’s favor is that it is possibly as stacked in terms of elite talent as we have ever seen. The top 10 players in the league right now are insanely good and there is a lot of HOF caliber talent beyond that too. Ranking the top 10 is far from easy because of how many true superstars exist; then get to the top 5 and it is almost like you are insulting guys by leaving them off. For example, it can be argued that a dude that just averaged a triple double is not even in the top 5, or that the MVP runner-up of two of the past three seasons should be left out, same for the unanimous MVP from two seasons ago that has won two titles in the past 3 years. At least one of those guys is probably not in the top 5, and it wouldn’t even be crazy to say that none of them are in the top 5. So it is worth following the league this year to enjoy a Mount Rushmore player possibly in one of his final great years, to watch well established superstars such as Durant, Curry, Westbrook, Harden, and Chris Paul do their thing, and finally to see some incredibly talented young unicorns like Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, and hopefully Joel Embid. People would surely be upset at who was left off this list, because there are so many more great players.
Furthermore, there are some compelling rivalries, both in terms of teams and individuals. Opening night features LeBron and the Cavs against Kyrie and the Celtics, and future matchups will get even more interesting once Thomas returns. Russ and the Thunder vs. KD and the Warriors just got a lot more interesting with the additions of George and Melo. The Wizards and Celtics have become a heated rivalry and of course there are two huge games between the Cavs and Warriors. Then there’s intrigue when stars like Melo, George, Heyward, CP3, and others match up against their own teams. So between that and the plethora of fantastic players, there should consistently be games worth watching. Oh, there’s also Lonzo!
Lastly, yes, it does seem that the Warriors are just about invincible, but watching greatness and rooting against greatness is a tried and true tradition of sports, and as Kevin Garnett once famously said: “Anything is possible!!!”
Enjoy the season.
Michael grew up in Owings Mills, MD, but also lived in Southern California for 12 years. He is a lifelong Orioles fan, a lover of travel, the outdoors, craft beer, and the NBA. Michael is a high school social studies teacher in Baltimore, where he also resides.