The NBA tips off on Tuesday, and everyone’s chasing the Warriors. But is there any chance someone actually catches them?
After Carmelo Anthony and Paul George were traded to the Thunder for a quarter on the dollar, and Jimmy Butler got dealt to the Timberwolves for two dimes, everyone’s trotting out Bill Simmons' tired moniker: "Leastern Conference." The East may pale in comparison to the West when it comes to star power, but the other blockbuster trade of the craziest off-season in recent memory added to the top-heavy flavor in the East when Kyrie Irving joined the Shamrocks along with free agent Gordon Hayward. Meanwhile, the Cavs added a 2010 All-Star duo in Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, so any locker room dancing at the Q might get awkward.
Cleveland's contemporary All-Star in return for Irving, Isaiah Thomas, might not even suit up for the wine and gold until the New Year, but the Cavs still have the best player in the Association on the floor. Can anyone but LeBron James and some switch-happy wing defenders—hi, Jae Crowder—even compete against Golden State? The West possesses a juicier array of answers. Lost amid the Melo and Butler trades is Paul George’s two-way brilliance. If the Thunder are truly going to compete with the juggernaut in the Bay, George has to be option 1A behind the reigning MVP, and Melo—even cowled—becomes a third option. Have fun with that Billy Donovan.
Running neck and neck with OKC is Houston, who added Chris Paul in a sign-and-trade. If the Rockets somehow upset the Warriors in the playoffs and go on to win a ring, does that mean Kevin McHale is right, and James Harden needed Chris Paul’s leadership to capture the crown? Or does it prove The Beard just needed the tutelage of the Pringles guy, Dwight Howard to disappear, and another playmaker to compete with the stacked team at the top?
Will the Spurs and Gregg Popovich continue to churn out title-contending teams, and will Kawhi be the frontrunner for MVP without a superstar sidekick? And does the Land of a Thousand Lakes have a thousand too many guys who need the ball for them to be successful this year?
Lastly, will Quire Sultan laugh off his social media snafu like his teammate, or will it be the only thing to doom perhaps the greatest team in NBA history? While we wait for the Cavs-Celtics and Rockets-Warriors to get it all going Tuesday on TNT starting at 8 p.m. ET, know that we have all the keys to more success for all 30 squads.
Key Player: Gordon Hayward—Irving is important, but Hayward knows coach Brad Stevens, and his game matches his former college coach’s offensive philosophy. The best thing about Stevens is his adaptability, and he’ll squeeze the best out of his new point guard. But, it’ll be Gordon’s eclectic offensive capabilities that’ll aid that transition the most.
Key Addition: Kyrie Irving—This is a completely different squad even after claiming the No. 1 seed and a Conference Finals berth. Jayson Tatum seems like a steal at No. 3, and Danny Ainge said he’d have taken him if the Celtics kept the No. 1 pick (of course he did). If you spot Tatum rise up over a defender in the mid-post this season, you’ll swear it’s an eight-year vet schooling a rookie instead of the other way around.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Jan. 23-29 (at Lakers, at Clippers, at Warriors, at Nuggets)—Opening night against LeBron and Co. will be special and Twitter will make season-long prognostications based off the results of half a quarter, but it’s their West Coast road trip in late January that’ll give us a real idea of how good the new-look Celts might be. The Lakers whet the appetite, but the Clippers, Warriors, Nuggets jaunt from Wednesday to Monday will reveal a lot about their chemistry.
Major Key: Irving adapting to Boston rather than vise versa. Can Cleveland’s former point guard stifle his tendency to over-dribble, and mesh with an offensive style emphasizing ball movement and spacing? Conversely, can Brad Stevens provide a framework within his offense to take advantage of the best one-on-one scorer in the game today? Will Irving take his defensive responsibility as seriously as he does his off-court brand? How will the culture change after Isaiah Thomas’ departure influence the locker room and the sometimes prickly personality of Irving? That’s a whole lot of questions for the ostensible favorites for the top seed in the Conference.
Key Player: D’Angelo Russell—DAR’s fresh start is the cliched media day story, but it could be true in Kenny Atkinson’s fast-paced offense predicated on Mike Budenholzer’s Spurs East in Atlanta. It’s read and react, and if Russell shares the ball like the offense calls for, he might not continue to be known as the guy who blew up Nick Young’s engagement to Iggy Azalea, or as the PG Magic Johnson jettisoned out of LA for Lonzo Ball.
Key Addition: Allen Crabbe—He finally joins the team that put forth the 4-year, $75 million offer sheet in 2016 which Portland then matched (the summer of 2016 was lit if you like deals that look suspect in retrospect). He’s a 3-and-D guy who can defend opposing wings and will fit nicely in Atkinson’s offensive system.
Key Portion of the Schedule: April 3-11 (at Boston, at Philadelphia)—The Nets finish out the season playing four of their last six on the road, including at Boston and Philadelphia, who could be jockeying for playoff seeds. But how they fare in the final week could determine the Cav’s draft lottery odds, which might be a big factor in whether LeBron re-signs in Cleveland.
Major Key: No tank stank. The Cavs now hold the Nets' first-round pick after the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston, so Brooklyn’s going to play hard every night. Plus, new GM Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson are a good foundation, and their amphetamine pace is a lot more exciting than the slow-it-down version enacted by the remnants of the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams era.
Also, Jeremy Lin is healthy again, and he was on pace to have a career year under Atkinson before going down. Keep an eye out on his opening week and stick around after the game for his eloquence.
New York Knicks
Key Player: Kristaps Porzingis—KP is the guy now, and we’ll see how he handles life after Carmelo Anthony. Expect a big drop-off in efficiency, as his isolation and post-up numbers last year don’t inspire much confidence in the Knicks this season. There were also rumors after he skipped his exit interview this spring that he didn’t get along with coach Jeff Hornacek, so keep an eye on that, too.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Dec. 16—Melo returns. Do they boo him, or Phil, or does someone just finally pour some popcorn on James Dolan? Maybe Oak Tree will show.
Major Key: The team isn’t going to be great, and they’ll be back counting ping pong balls in the spring. After the Phil fiasco and Melo trade, they also owe Joakim Noah and Enes Kanter—neither of whom are as talented as Willy Hernangomez—over $92 million guaranteed over the next three years.
Aside from KP’s development as the alpha and where they fall in the draft lottery, most of the media bubble will focus on perhaps the most quotable player in the NBA at this point. Beasley’s discussion with Sportsnet NY’s Taylor Rooks about humans only using 10 percent of their brain should be taught in journalism school.
Key Player: Joel Embiid—Hyperbole doesn’t exist when you talk about Joel Embiid’s way-too-short introduction to NBA audiences. He got serious ROY consideration after appearing in just 31 games last season, but his presence was just that awe-inspiring. It’s not some Sixers dream to say he could be Hakeem Olajuwon, but with serious 3-point range. Starved Sixers Twitter has a tendency to hyperventilate about ho-hum developments, but their gushing about Embiid, both on the court and on social media, is totally warranted. This guy is fun and could be one of the most dominant players ever. He just has to stay on the court.
Key Addition: Markelle Fultz—Fultz is a franchise point guard and a future All-Star, according to scouts. Then he decided to add a hitch to an otherwise fine-looking shot. This is the No. 1 pick changing his shooting mechanics the summer before he debuts in the NBA?! Whether his talent translates to the NBA after such an odd decision—on a team with a lot of mouths to feed and a point-forward in Simmons—remains to be seen. The presence of J.J. Redick will only help, though, as defenses keyed on Ben, Markelle and Embiid loosen to stay with the energetic sharpshooter. The perception around the NBA is that Fultz is already a mistake because of the new giddyup in his shooting stroke, but he hasn't played one regular-season game yet, and there's a reason he was so highly touted after a lone season at Washington.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Oct. 18-30 or Nov. 11-18 or Feb. 25-March 4—The first two sets of dates will likely feature Embiid—including road games in Washington and Houston and a visit from the Celtics, and then two games against the Warriors in mid November. But, there’s no telling if he’s healthy right after the All-Star break when the Sixers face a bevy of likely Eastern playoff teams—Washington, Cleveland, Miami and Milwaukee—on the road.
Major Key: If Embiid’s healthy—and that could be appearing as few as 60 games—they’re a threat to have home-court in the first round. If he’s not, they might be in the lottery yet again. That’s how good he is, and how important he’ll be even with a vastly improved roster around him.
Key Player: Serge Ibaka—If Dwane Casey were a tad more creative, starting Ibaka at center isn’t crazy (though rebounding will be sparse), especially if you have Jonas Valanciunas feast on second units while simultaneously inflating his trade value. The Raptors would need the Serge Protector version of Ibaka that led Sam Presti to deal James Harden, but he hasn’t been present for almost a half decade now. If Ibaka has a career resurgence and stops caring about how many pick-and-pop attempts to focus on blockading the rim, the Raptors could again make a Conference Finals.
Key Addition: C.J. Miles—Raptors fans are gonna love when Miles does his J.R. Smith routine and hits a lightening quick catch-and-shoot from 30 feet with his body facing the sideline.
Key Portion of the Schedule: March 31-April 4 (at Boston, Cleveland, Boston)—As the end of the regular season draws to a close, the Raptors face the Celtics in Boston, then the Cavs, and Celtics as they head north. If the Raptors are in the thick of a race for a top seed in the East, these three games could decide it. If they aren’t, we’ll know they’ve continued to drop back from the pack in the Conference most think is a top-heavy joke.
Major Key: Will DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry ever reach their regular season heights during the postseason? If they continue to take a nosedive every April, look for another Conference Semifinal loss, or maybe even sooner. Lowry quietly had a career year in 2016-17, at least from an offensive efficiency perspective. But he injured his shooting wrist in February last season and it plagued him in the playoffs. If he can stay healthy, maybe the #RTZ gets to laugh about a Celtics loss in the second round.
Key Player: Kent Bazemore—Aside from the center Cerberus monster of Joakim Noah, Timofey Mozgov, and Bismack Biyombo, Kent Bazemore might be a poster child for wacky deals from the 2016 NBA offseason. Flush with TV-rights cash, teams went a little bonkers before this past summer’s modest increase in the cap brought everyone back down to earth. Can Bazemore start to resemble the two-way wing the Hawks thought they had when they signed him?
Key Addition: Dewayne Dedmon—He was Gregg Popovich’s rim-rolling, basket-protecting starting center last year when he got tired of Pau Gasol getting schooled. But, we saw him hit a pretty 3-pointer in preseason action the other day, and one from the elbow, so maybe he’s adding an offensive dimension to his game that isn’t a lob dunk.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Jan. 26 and March 15—The two dates the Hornets come to Atlanta and we get to hear Hawks fans boo hometown non-hero Dwight Howard. Oh yeah, Atlanta—who always got the NBA TV treatment when they were making the playoffs—isn’t ever on ESPN or TNT this year and they’re only on NBA TV twice. Coach Bud, one of the best in the game, will make them interesting to watch, but he deserves better than this roster.
Major Key: Heading into his second year, Taureen Prince has a nice stroke from beyond the arc, and he’s sturdier than his experience and body would have you believe. The 23-year-old is a good wing defender with nearly a seven-foot wingspan, and as recompense for those traits he’ll defend the LeBron James’ and Gordon Hayward’s of the world.
Key Player: Dwight Howard—Hawks players allegedly cheered when they heard Howard had been traded to the Hornets, and Dwight got his annual, has-he-figured-it-out feature—this time by SI’s estimable Lee Jenkins. But, don’t hold your breath, Hornets fans.
Key Addition: Malik Monk—If Cody Zeller gets the nod over Howard (he might be the best screener in the whole League right now), Charlotte’s second unit could be fun. Monk could work well with a big point guard, and MCW is that. Additionally, Monk can shoot and MCW can’t, but they can cross match and Frank Kaminksy adds some scoring when Marvin Williams subs out.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Feb. 28-March 6 (at Philadelphia, at Boston, at Toronto)—A three-game road trip at Philly, Boston and Toronto before coming home to play Philly again. All four are playoff teams, and how they do on the road could be a major factor in them making the playoffs are not.
Major Key: Health and Kemba Walker’s continued growth as a player. In order to compete for a playoff berth they need to stay healthy—specifically, Nicolas Batum and Dwight Howard (of the former, dammit!). On top of that, Kemba Walker can’t see his production and efficiency slide. He’s improved his true shooting percentage and PER the last three seasons, culminating in his first All-Star berth last season. He’ll need to be right there with John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and Kyle Lowry if the Hornets are to compete for a playoff spot in a Conference where competing for a playoff spot is pretty magnanimous.
Key Player: Justise Winslow—Danny Ainge offered four first-round picks just for a chance at acquiring Winslow in the 2015 Draft. But after the former Dukie went down with an injury last year, the Heat took off: They finished 41-41 after starting 11-30! Winslow has the perfect wing’s body and quickness, but he can’t shoot.
For whom the bell tolls? It tolls for forwards who aren’t a threat from three. That’s a threat, too, not even actual shooting ability. Should Winslow drastically improve from three, defenders are still going to sag off him until he proves he can consistently torch them (the Al-Farouq Aminu rule, if you will).
Key Addition: Kelly Olynyk—He’ll come off the bench for James Johnson and act as the yin to Dion Waiters’ yang in a fun buddy cop movie produced by The Players’ Tribune. But he’s not really going to change their status in the East, no matter how many ruddy wannabes rock man buns at the beach.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Oct. 18-30 (San Antonio, Boston, Minnesota)—The opening two weeks of the season will prove if Pat Riley was right to re-sign—after striking out on available stars—Waiters and James Johnson. They start with some cupcakes, Orlando, Indiana and Atlanta, but then welcome San Antonio, Boston and Minnesota. If they finish above .500 in the opening 10 games, then they might be primed for a surprise run to home-court advantage in the first round. Or, it’ll be the inverse of last season’s Tale of Two Teams. Still, Miami is one of those rare streaking teams that returns most of the same lineup.
Major Key: Goran Dragic or Dragon? Last season, after Pat Riley dissed Dwyane Wade, the 2017 EuroBasket MVP came close to matching his All-NBA output from 2014. This season he could again barrel ahead in semi-transition for impressively physical layups, and step-back threes mixed with tasty floaters in the half-court. If Dragon Dragic is back next season, Miami fans will again be treated to basketball they don’t deserve.
Key Player: Aaron Gordon—Gordon’s finally going to play power forward after getting stuck out of position last season, and he might make them a bit better than and the rest of the Eastern Conference miasma looking towards June in October. Also, scouts seem to like the lean and skilled Isaac, the Florida State hybrid forward who could be a super role player that switches everything on defense (the Warriors corollary), shoot enough to keep defenses honest, and botch one or two pick and rolls a game.
Key Addition: Jonathan Simmons—Simmons is stuck behind Fournier, but it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to life outside the Gregg Popovich bubble, where he appeared to be the only Spurs player competing against the Warriors after Klaw went down last May. Maurice Speights will score and some uninformed, cosmetic fans will wonder about that mole on top of his head. Arron Afflalo returns to the team where he had his breakout season as the primary scorer in 2014.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Nov. 29-Dec. 1—First Oklahoma City and then Golden State visit the city Walt Disney built, so at least Magic fans can see what a title-contending team looks like.
Major Key: Elfrid Payton. Is he the point guard of the future? Is there a chance he becomes better, or at least more aerodynamic if he ever shaves his head? Or is he like Sampson? Can you be a productive NBA point guard if you can’t shoot? Lots of questions. Maybe this season will see some definitive answers.
Key Player: John Wall—He isn’t great in the half court, but in transition there are few alive who can do what he does. Like their leader, Washington is one of the best when they get out and run, but Wall has to be more efficient when the game slows down—he ranks near the bottom in the League in points per possession when he’s running the pick-and-roll, which he does over 40 percent of the time. If he can’t find a way to get buckets for his team in half-court sets, which is the norm as teams face tougher competition in the playoffs, the Wizards will be stuck a rung behind LeBron and the Celtics.
Key Addition: Otto Porter—Not many additions to a team that’s bringing its same nucleus back, but they did extend Wall and sign Porter to a max deal—Porter is now the highest paid player on the team, making almost $4 million more than Wall will in 2017-18 (hence, the smart Wall extension). In lieu of any new players of note—apologies, Jodi Meeks and Tim Frazier—they have added some cockiness, which they'll need if their starters are going to pull them all the way to the Conference finals. Their bench will spend too much time showing fans why they don't start.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Oct 23-Nov. 5 (or really their first 10 games)—Early on, the Wizards go on a four-game swing out West, starting in the thin air against an improved Nuggets roster, and then heading to Oracle to face the defending champs. After that, they’re back home to face the Cavs and then fly to Toronto. They open the season against Philly, too, likely with a healthy Joel Embiid. If the Wizards are able to stay above .500 in those first 10 games, they’ll be in a lot better place than they were when they started 2-8 last season.
Major Key: Porter making a leap and Ian Mahinmi staying healthy. Porter needs to increase his production if he’s going to make his new deal worth it. That means defending at a higher level and taking more of the offensive burden off Bradley Beal and Wall. Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi combine to be one diabolical center who can set tremendous screens and defend the rim. Washington’s $64 million man, Mahinmi, missed 51 games last year with an assortment of knee issues, but Scott Brooks is optimistic after Mahinmi supposedly got into great shape this summer.
Key Player: Zach LaVine—The Bulls are a long way from the Three Alpha—Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler—era. LaVine is the most exciting player they got back after dealing Butler to Minnesota, and he’s recovering from an ACL tear in his left knee. These are the Chicago Bulls in 2017.
Key Addition: Kris Dunn—Aside from an injured LaVine, and Dunn’s husk of his former self at Providence (Tom Thibodeau’s sideline bark can disorient even the most experienced rookies), there’s the rookie from Arizona, Lauri Markkanen. He’s a deft, 7-footer who can shoot and handle the rock, but he’s buried behind Bobby Portis and the hedge that is Andrew Luck Nikola Mirotic’s beard (and extension).
Key Portion of the Schedule: Feb. 9—No date range here because not even Bulls fans care about this season except as it sets up for Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley, or Michael Porter. On this date, though, Jimmy Butler is back and fans will have a chance to boo Gar Forman and John Paxson.
Major Key: The players, coach and certainly management should ignore Bulls fans on Twitter as they sink into lottery rebuild mode.
Key Player: Kevin Love—With the news from Cavs camp saying Kevin Love will be jumping at mid-court as the starting center when the season starts, the former All-NBA forward just became the most important piece of this new-look Cavs squad. He had the best defensive rating on the team in the Finals last year, but opponents shot better— 4.3 percent, per NBA.com— in the paint against him during the regular season. He’s not gonna defend the rim, but he will help open up the offense.
Key Addition: Dwyane Wade—This might be the worst personnel fit around LeBron since The Decision. There’s a dearth of 3-point shooting and most of the talent reached its apogee before Jim Gray was a lackey for Maverick Carter. But we’re nostalgic for the Wade and LeBron pairing, and maybe a dreadlocked Derrick Rose is more engaged on defense and his vision expands to include his teammates. Jae Crowder, who can capably stanch 3’s and 4’s, is the reason Ty Lue can start Kevin Love at center. New GM Koby Altman was given an impossible task—dealing Kryie Irving when every team knew he wanted to be traded—and succeeded. So, owner Dan Gilbert definitely won’t give him an extension when his contract is up.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Feb. 7-13 (Minnesota, at Boston, at Oklahoma City)—It starts with a restocked Minnesota team coming to the Q on ESPN. Then, Cleveland goes on the road for five nights before the All-Star break. Only Atlanta, their first stop, is easy. On the 11th, they’re in Boston, and two nights later they’re in Oklahoma City. If they can beat Boston and OKC, they’ll be coasting into the break.
Major Key: LeBron going HAM during the regular season. LeBron hasn’t cared about the regular season since 2012, but none of his top teammates has ever asked to be traded, either. With the other MVP contenders watered down by superstars changing teams this summer, and Isaiah Thomas’ hip keeping him on the sidelines for the first part of the season, James could add a fifth MVP to his overflowing trophy case and another quip at the bar when fools try to say Bean is better.
Key Player: Andre Drummond—Drummond regressed badly last year, specifically on defense. He’s got the foot speed and athleticism to be in contention for DPOY, but it’s the space between the ears that’s in question. Hopefully Stan Van Gundy can figure out that last part, and Drummond can figure out how to hit a shot from the charity stripe so he can stay on the floor late in games. If not…BOBAN TIME!
Key Addition: Avery Bradley—He can shoot, maybe even better than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and he’s one of the toughest, if not the toughest—with Tony Allen aging himself out of the discussion—on-ball defenders in all of the Association. Van Gundy is gonna love him. Reggie Jackson is gonna have to share the ball a bit more with his backcourt mate.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Feb. 26-March 6 (at Toronto, Milwaukee, at Orlando, at Miami, at Cleveland, Toronto)—The Raptors—first in Toronto and then at home—bookend four games against playoff contenders in the East. If SVG’s squad intends to return to the playoffs after last season’s disappointment, this stretch of games against the Raptors, Heat, Cavs, and Bucks could decide it.
Major Key: Will Stanley Johnson ever develop into the wing many thought he’d be coming out of college? If he does, the Pistons become a lock to play late into April. That’s a big if, though. Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and Bradley will carry them offensively, but Johnson is the added threat who could put them in the same tier as the Raptors.
Key Player: Myles Turner—The Pacers didn’t have any personality even with Paul George. Now they’re an NBA team, like a Twitter influencer, but when you meet them in real life, or watch them play, they’re completely uninteresting because they’re always buried in their phones. Indiana is a basketball state, just not professional basketball, and this team doesn’t change that at all. (Heck, even when verticality was in the basketblogger lexicon, and Roy Hibbert was getting All-Star votes, fans still didn’t really show up.) Myles Turner could be great on both offense and defense—he almost averaged a steal and two blocks per game in his second season, which is pretty elite company.
Key Additions: Victor Oladipo—Did you know that Victor Oladipo ($21 million) will make around $1.5 million more than Paul George in 2017-18? Yeah, that sums up Kevin Pritchard’s offseason and the continued irrelevance of Indiana’s only—unless you count big-time colleges—professional hoops team.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Dec. 13—The date Paul George returns to town is also Indiana’s only appearance on either ESPN or TNT this season. The rest of the year belongs to tanking and seeing how much better Turner can get.
Major Key: Turner’s development into a franchise star. Let him shoot six 3-pointers a game and command the defense from the back line. Turner’s the only chance the Pacers have of developing elite talent until they pick in June.
Key Player: Thon Maker—It would be easy to put the Greek Freak here, but the young (or not?), Sudanese-born Maker is poised to be the prototype of the stretch five. If he can continue to make strides in his game and show the improvement coach Jason Kidd rewarded late last season with some serious run at center, the Bucks leapfrog the Miami, Charlotte, and Phiadelphias of the world.
Key Addition: D.J. Wilson—The perimeter-oriented Wilson isn’t too keen on banging down low and he’s stuck behind John Henson and Mirza Teletovic on the depth chart, but could be a future asset if he fills out and adds a little bang to his game.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Dec. 16-29 (at Houston, Cleveland, Minnesota, at Oklahoma City)—They open the season in Boston and then host Cleveland, but it’s a brutal two weeks before the turn of the year that’ll really show what they’re made of this year. Trips to Houston and Oklahoma City bookend visits from Cleveland and Minnesota and a pair of back-to-back games with the Hornets. If they come out of that seven-game stretch at 4-3 or better, watch out.
Major Key: Giannis Antetokounmpo. The NBA MVP in 2021 continues to be one of the single most incredible entities the game has seen. Now it’s time for all the outsized talent to translate in the win column. Despite becoming an All-Star, All-NBA 2nd Team selection, and the winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season, Giannis still hasn’t gotten out of the first round in the weaker Conference. The Bucks need him to reach new heights in April (26.1 PER in the regular season vs. 21.9 in the playoffs last year) if they’re going to take the next step as a team.
Key Player: Harrison Barnes—Last summer, the Mavericks threw nearly $100 million at free agent forward Harrison Barnes. It was a move many questioned at the time, and early returns don’t look great. Despite setting a career high in scoring in 2016-17, his 19.2 points per game came inefficiently, and his advanced stats placed him in the bottom 50th percentile on both ends of the floor. This season, Barnes needs to earn his keep, step up, and prove that he can be a future piece for Dallas in the post-Dirk era that lies ahead.
Key Addition: Dennis Smith, Jr.—There aren’t a lot of reasons to watch the Dallas Mavericks this season, but Dennis Smith, Jr. is certainly a big one. A pogo stick athlete with And-1 Mixtape handles and a deadly step-back game, the rookie point guard is the best prospect this young Mavs team has.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Oct. 21-Nov. 1 (at Houston, Golden State, at Memphis, at Utah, at Clippers)—Early in the season, the Mavs face a stretch of seven straight games against teams projected by Vegas oddsmakers to have winning records.
Major Key: Get Dirk Nowitzki through the season in one piece. The Mavs aren't going to be competing for a playoff spot this season, and now that Seth Curry is out indefinitely with a stress reaction in his leg they likely won't be all that competitive. But one thing to root for in Dallas this year is Dirk Nowitzki, who is less than 1,200 points away from overtaking Wilt Chamberlain for the #5 spot on the all-time scoring list. Let him go out on top and on his own terms.
Key Player: James Harden—Last season, James Harden was the Rockets’ everything. Now, general manager Darryl Morey has acquired a suitable running-mate for the 2016-17 MVP runner-up, Chris Paul. After leading the league in assists last season, will Harden be willing to share the rock more than he’s had to since his OKC days?
Key Addition: Chris Paul—James Harden won’t be the only Rockets player who will have to sacrifice this season. In Houston, Chris Paul will be forced to share lead guard duties with Harden, who is at his best when the ball is in his hands. For the League’s active leader in assists, that’s a big ask. But if any coach is up to the challenge of making it work, it’s Mike D’Antoni.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Oct. 17 (at Golden State)—For the Rockets, this one game will mean more than any stretch of games they'll play all year. On opening night, Houston will have a chance to show a national television audience that they can hang with the Warriors.
Major Key: Pray that the Golden State Warriors get food poisoning next May. Houston figures to be one the of the toughest teams to match up against in the League. Unfortunately for them the one team that can really do it, the Golden State Warriors, plays in their conference.
Key Player: Mike Conley—For NBA nerds of the mid-2010s, Mike Conley has been a perennial favorite in the “hey, you know who’s really underrated” category. Like, did you know that his box plus-minus was better than Isaiah Thomas’ last year? Or that his number of win shares per minute in 2016-17 was basically identical to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s? Wait, what’s that? You couldn’t care less? Oh.
Key Addition: Tyreke Evans—When your key addition is Tyreke Evans, you really need to reevaluate where you’re at as a franchise. The Grizzlies are too good to tank but too bad to make noise in the playoffs, and that’s a tough place to be in the NBA. The Grizzlies are approaching a major crossroads.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Oct. 18-Nov. 1 (New Orleans, Golden State, at Houston, at Dallas, Dallas, Houston)—To start the season, the Grizzlies play six of their first eight games at home. And while their two games against Houston and their meeting with the Warriors should go down as losses, the Grizzlies will need to take advantage of the early home slate to get off on the right foot in 2017-18.
Major Key: Chandler Parsons’ knees not falling apart. Once one of the League's brightest up-and-comers, Chandler Parsons is coming off a season in which he averaged just 6.2 points in 19.9 minutes per game and shot an abysmal 33.8% from the floor. His body has betrayed him since leaving the Rockets in free agency three years ago, but coming into this year he finally looks healthy.
New Orleans Pelicans
Key Player: Jrue Holiday—We know, we know…this should be Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins. But the truth of the matter is that we already know what AD and Boogie bring to the table; the biggest question marks surrounding the Pelicans this coming season exist outside their star-studded frontcourt. When he’s healthy, Jrue Holiday is a real X-factor for New Orleans, providing the team with the floor-spacing and playmaking needed to free up AD and Boogie to do real damage around the basket.
Key Addition: Rajon Rondo—We’re not in love with Rajon Rondo’s fit in the backcourt in New Orleans, because of his inability to space the floor. But there’s no denying that he’ll set up Holiday, Davis, and Cousins for easy looks. Plus, he’s better than Tim Frazier, who started 35 games at point guard for the Pelicans last season.
Key Portion of the Schedule: April 1–11 (Oklahoma City, Memphis, at Golden State, at Clippers, Spurs)—If the Pelicans are going to make the playoffs this season, it’s likely going to come down to the wire. With five of New Orleans’ last six games coming against likely or guaranteed playoff teams, this will be a make or break stretch for them.
Major Key: Boogie and AD figuring out a way to coexist. After the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins at last season's trade deadline, many expected them to make a serious push for the playoffs. Instead, they went 11-13 to end the year. Let's see what a full offseason together does for the League's most dynamic big man duo.
San Antonio Spurs
Key Player: Kawhi Leonard—This should go without saying…Kawhi Leonard was one of the five best players in the NBA last season, and with the 26-year-old swingman nursing a right quad injury that has lingered all offseason the Spurs may be forced to go on without him when the curtain rises on the 2017-18 season.
Key Addition: Rudy Gay—Coming off a major Achilles injury, Rudy Gay—even when healthy—has been largely disappointing in recent years. That said, he’s a member of the San Antonio Spurs now, so expect him to log major minutes for head coach Gregg Popovich throughout the season and put up career-best numbers en route to a Sixth Man of the Year award in the process.
Key Portion of the Schedule: March 8-12 (at Golden State, at Oklahoma City, at Houston)—In five days, the Spurs play perhaps the three best teams in the Western Conference, all on the road.
Major Key: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Pau Gasol reaching the finish line. All 35+ years old, Parker, Ginobili, and Gasol still figure to be major contributors for Gregg Popovich's Spurs this season. Parker is already nursing a quad injury that will likely sideline him until December. Will all three be on the floor coming playoff time?
Key Player: Nikola Jokic—One of the best young centers in the NBA, and an absolute joy to watch, Jokic was just 22 years old at the end of last season, the 6’10” center put up 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game, and this coming year he figures to play an even bigger role in Denver’s offense. With the Nuggets losing leading scorer Danilo Gallinari to the Clippers this summer, they’ll need the extra boost from Jokic in year three.
Key Addition: Paul Millsap—An All-Star in each of the last four seasons, Paul Millsap does a little bit of everything. He stretches the floor, he facilitates for teammates, and he defends the hell out of the power forward position. With him and Jokic manning the frontcourt and shooters like Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Wilson Chandler flanking the perimeter, the Nuggets will be a difficult team to game plan against.
Key Portion of the Schedule: December 4-23—Over the course of 19 days, the Nuggets play nine of their 11 games on the road. They end the stretch with a road back-to-back at Portland and Golden State.
Major Key: One of the young guys taking the next step. Whether it's Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, or Gary Harris, the Nuggets desperately need one of their young guys to become the face of their franchise moving forward.
Key Player: Jimmy Butler—In one summer, the Minnesota Timberwolves went from contender of the future to pretty darn good of the right now. They traded for two-way Bulls star Jimmy Butler, reuniting him with head coach Tom Thibodeau, and acquired veterans Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague to fill out the roster. And with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns poised to take off, the Timberwolves could be looking at the postseason for the first time in 14 years.
Key Addition: Jimmy Butler is the obvious answer. And while Karl-Anthony Towns might be the more talented player, Butler will be the unquestioned leader of the team moving forward. The value of his experience and hard-nosed attitude is difficult to overstate.
Key Portion of the Schedule: April 1-11. (Utah, at Denver, at Lakers, Memphis, Denver)—To end the season, the Timberwolves play a handful of games that could decide their playoff fate.
Major Key: Thibs not grinding everybody down into sawdust by playoff time. Thibodeau is a great coach. But despite his wisdom, he remains woefully stubborn when it comes to managing minutes. Last season, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns ranked #1 and #2 in the League in minutes played, and if this team is able to make the playoffs they're going to want to have fresh legs against what will likely be a well-rested, top-four seeded opponent.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Key Player: Russell Westbrook—The reigning MVP may not be the only superstar in Oklahoma City again this season, but Russell Westbrook is undoubtedly the team’s most important player. But in order for Oklahoma City to be more than semifinals fodder this year, they’ll need the triple-double king to sacrifice in a way he’s not yet shown he can do since entering the League almost a decade ago. Whether it works or not, it’ll at least be fun to watch.
Key Addition: Paul George—With all the buzz surrounding Carmelo Anthony’s recent trade from the Knicks to the Thunder, the spotlight has been taken off Westbrook’s true sidekick, Paul George. At just 27 years old, PG13 is entering the prime of his career, and in OKC he should be able to slide into the secondary role for which his game is better suited. Between him, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, and even Russell Westbrook, the Thunder figure to feature one of the League’s better defensive starting fives. It might just be enough to make up for starting Carmelo Anthony at the four spot.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Feb. 11-14 (Memphis, Cleveland, at Memphis)—Heading into the All-Star break, the Thunder will be forced to decide whether or not they can count on Paul George and Carmelo Anthony sticking around past the summer, when both can become free agents. If they can’t, the prudent move could be to move on if things aren’t going too hot coming into the break.
Major Key: Russ sharing the basketball. Last season, Russell Westbrook had to do it all for the Thunder. Now he has Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to help relieve the pressure, but will he be willing to take a step back?
Portland Trail Blazers
Key Player: Damian Lillard—Dame is one of the most electrifying guards in the NBA, but despite setting career highs in scoring in each of the last two seasons—on awesome efficiency, we might add—he was snubbed from the West’s All-Star team both times. Things haven’t gotten much easier for Lillard with the influx of talent the Conference saw this summer, but it’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to best the 27.0 points per game he scored last season.
Key Addition: Jusuf Nurkic—Sure, Nurkic wasn’t added to the roster this offseason, but 2017-18 will mark the first full season the Blazers have had with the seven-footer since acquiring him at the trade deadline in February. In 20 games with the Blazers, the Bosnian bruiser put up 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists in just under 30 minutes per game. If he can keep up that pace this year, the Blazers might be able to climb off the 9th-seed treadmill they appear to be stuck on.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Oct. 24-Nov.15—Over the course of about three weeks early in the season, the Blazers will have to leave Portland just once, for a short, midweek flight to Salt Lake City. If they can take advantage and come out hot to start the year that would be huge for their confidence.
Major Key: Neil Olshey swinging a trade. We like the pieces on this team a lot, but they won't have cap space until the summer of 2020 and likely won't be bad enough to pick at the top of the draft in the coming years. With about $70 million a year locked up in Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Evan Turner over the next three seasons, the Blazers need to do something to diversify their roster.
Key Player: Rudy Gobert—If Gordon Hayward had decided to remain in Salt Lake City this summer, things could have been set for the Jazz. Instead, they’ve lost their best player and have to scramble to replace his All-Star level production on the wing. With Joe Ingles stepping into Hayward’s starting spot, that won’t happen… but what the team can hang its hopes on is a major step forward from center Rudy Gobert. The 25-year-old Frenchman has shown massive improvement in each of his four seasons to date, setting career highs in points (14.0), rebounds (12.8), and blocks (2.6) per game in 2016-17. Last season marked the 7’1” rim protector’s first time reaching double-figure points per game. And while he’s not a threat with the ball in his hands outside of the paint, he’s one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the League and will benefit mightily from the addition of point guard Ricky Rubio.
Key Addition: Ricky Rubio—With his incredible ability to create opportunities for his teammates out of the pick-and-roll, Ricky Rubio is the perfect player to unlock Gobert’s offensive potential. Last season, Utah’s leading assist man, George Hill, averaged just 4.2 dimes per game. Rubio has averaged more than double that number in each of his past four seasons. It hasn’t been since the the height of Deron Williams’ tenure with the Jazz that they’ve had an above-average playmaker leading their offense. That was more than half a decade ago.
Key Portion of the Schedule: December 15-30 (at Boston, at Cleveland, at Houston, at Oklahoma City, at Houston, at Oklahoma City, Spurs, at Denver, at Golden State, Cleveland)—If the Jazz can come away with more than two wins during this nine-game stretch, they should be thrilled.
Major Key: Discovering a new offensive identity. Hayward is gone, and in his absence the Jazz will have to lean on guys like Gobert, Rodney Hood, and Derrick Favors and ask them to step up offensively. Quin Snyder should be able to utilize Ricky Rubio's playmaking ability to spread out the load some.
Golden State Warriors
Key Player: Kevin Durant—Say what you will about Steph, Draymond, and Klay, but we’re taking KD here…The man was an absolute monster in last June’s NBA Finals, putting up 35.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of .698 in five games. And with a year under his belt in Oakland, we’re expecting him to take on even more responsibility this coming season. If Durant and the Warriors can stay healthy, how can anybody stop them?
Key Addition: Nick Young—This was basically between Nick Young and Jordan Bell. The fact that we get to see Swaggy P and JaVale McGee reunited once again made our answer easy.
Key Portion of the Schedule: The date of their 2018 Championship parade.
Major Key: Don’t change a damn thing.
Los Angeles Clippers
Key Player: Blake Griffin—During the CP3 era in Los Angeles, it always felt like Blake Griffin was being kept from actualizing his true potential. With Chris Paul gone, now we get to see what a Clippers team led by a more polished Griffin looks like.
Key Addition: Patrick Beverley—One of the best two-way guards in the League, Patrick Beverley will help redefine the Clippers’ identity with his toughness and less ball-dominant playing style. Alongside Lou Williams and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Danilo Gallinari on the wing, he’ll provide some floor-spacing to free up room for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to operate inside.
Key Portion of the Schedule: Feb. 9-27 (at Boston, at Golden State, at Phoenix, at Denver)—With seven road games broken up by the All-Star break, the Clippers go 23 days in a row in the month of February without playing a game at Staples Center.
Major Key: Staying healthy for once.
Los Angeles Lakers
Key Player: Brandon Ingram—The second pick in the 2016 NBA Draft struggled mightily as a rookie last season, averaging 9.4 points on just 40.2% shooting in 28.8 minutes per game. With Brandon Ingram entering his sophomore campaign, the Lakers badly need him to step up this year. The addition of rookie Lonzo Ball should shift some of the pressure off of Ingram.
Key Addition: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—To the surprise of basically everyone around the League, the Lakers were able to scoop up restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope without having to throw max money and max years at him. In fact, they were able to bring him to LA on a one-year deal, which is great for the Lakers since they don’t own their first-round pick in 2018 and therefore have no incentive not to win every game they possibly can while developing their young guys. KCP should fit nicely as a catch-and-shoot threat and secondary ballhandler alongside Lonzo Ball.
Portion of the Schedule: Oct. 19—The Lakers open the season at home against their arena-mates, the Los Angeles Clippers. This first game will set the tone for this young team; will things be as disorganized and disappointing as last season or is this the start of something new in LA?
Major Key: LaVar Ball staying in his lane.
Key Player: Devin Booker—Last season, at just 20 years of age, Devin Booker dropped 70 points in an NBA game, becoming just the sixth player in league history to do so. In 2017-18, we highly doubt the third-year shooting guard will be able to top that feat, but he can become more consistent as a playmaker and defender this year. With Phoenix in what feels like the 10th year of its soft rebuild, Booker is one of the few bright spots on the Suns’ roster.
Key Addition: Josh Jackson—Jackson might not be the flashiest rookie in this year’s class, but what he lacks in marketability he makes up for with defensive savvy and a nice all-around game. The rangy small forward is a freak athlete and an underrated playmaker, and in Phoenix he’ll be given plenty of leeway to try, fail, and grow as a player.
Key Portion of the Schedule: The date of the NBA Draft Lottery.
Major Key: Commit to the tank and pray to the lottery gods. Remember way back in the summer of 2013 when it looked like the Sixers and Suns had entered tanking's equivalent of the Space Race? Well, it didn't quite turn out like that...Four years later, one team has a roster full of young studs with the potential to contend for the next decade; the other still can't decide whether to win or to rebuild. Phoenix needs to finally embrace the tank and climb out of NBA purgatory.
Key Player: De’Aaron Fox—One of the fastest players to enter the league in recent years, Fox's unending motor and ability to push the fastbreak should make watching the Sacramento Kings a bit more bearable this season than it was in the post-Boogie twilight of the spring. With a starting lineup that features Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein, this team badly needs someone like Fox who can step right in and command the offense.
Key Addition: Bogdan Bogdanovic—No, we didn’t just misspell Bojan Bogdanovic’s name…we’re talking about Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Serbian sharpshooter whose rights the Kings acquired on draft night in 2016. The Eastern European answer to John Johnson, the 25-year-old Bogdanovic brings with him rave reviews from international scouts and NBA talent evaluators alike.
Key Portion of the Schedule: October 26—Just one week into the 2017-18 season, we’ll be treated to the return of DeMarcus Cousins to Sacramento.
Major Key: Don’t trade any more future picks or pick swaps. Over the past half year or so, the Kings have actually made a handful of really nice moves to secure a brighter future for a long-suffering franchise. But since then the brains behind their offseason plan, Scott Perry, was scooped up by the Knicks to serve as their new GM, and Sacramento re-upped Vlade Divac on an extended contract to serve as their general manager. Here's hoping he shows patience moving forward.