by Rob Joyce
It was one of the wildest NBA off seasons in recent memory. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler and Paul George were all traded, Kyrie Irving was, too, after shockingly wanting out of Cleveland. Kevin Durant is out there trolling people on Twitter from fake accounts. And there’s a rookie in Los Angeles who isn’t saying much, but his dad sure is.
Now it’s time to see how all of the moving and shaking actually plays out on the court. With the start of the regular season coming in two weeks, here are the five biggest storylines heading into the year:
5) Do two contenders lie in the Upper Midwest?
In the Eastern Conference the Bucks were a six-seed a year ago as Giannis Antetokounmpo became a bonafide superstar, leading the team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Khris Middleton will be his No. 2, after playing just 29 games a season ago. Jabari Parker is out until at least the All-Star break with a torn ACL, but if he can come back and regain his role as Antetokounmpo’s wingman, Milwaukee can surprise some teams in the East.
Five hours northwest, the Timberwolves look like a legitimate team in a crowded Western Conference. Karl-Anthony Towns had a historic 2016-17, Andrew Wiggins’ growth continues, they traded for a top-10 player in Jimmy Butler and added Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford. That’s a legitimate starting five with one of the game’s best coaching minds in Tom Thibodeau. The West is awfully crowded as it is, but the T-Wolves are primed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
4) Can Lonzo Ball bring the Lakers back to relevance?
Love him or hate him, Lonzo Ball (and, by extension, LaVar and the entire family) dominated headlines in the summer. Whether it was the $500 Big Baller Brand shoes, LaVar’s claims that the Lakers are going back to the playoffs… or that his son is better than Stephen Curry… or that he’ll be better than Magic Johnson… or that– (okay, you get the picture).
Whether you think these claims are legitimate is essentially inconsequential, because the elder Ball’s nonsense has worked. From receiving 23 national television games to making the Summer League must-see TV (Lonzo was named MVP), the Lakers are relevant again. After finishing in the bottom-two in the West for four straight seasons, people are going to pay attention to one of the league’s premier franchises, which is good business for the NBA.
3) How will the shiny new toys in OKC and Houston fit in?
The Thunder essentially stole Paul George away from the Pacers, giving up Victor Oladipo and Damontas Sabonis for George’s one-year deal. Then they added Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks. Sure, Westbrook’s 2016-17 season was historic – the man averaged a triple-double – but no matter how talented, he couldn’t single-handedly lift the Thunder beyond the six-seed and a five-game exit in the first round to Houston. George and Anthony can ensure that Westbrook doesn’t need to be Superman every night. The question is, will he fight for alpha-male status like he did with Kevin Durant?
Speaking of the Rockets, they too traded for a potential one-year rental in Chris Paul. One of the great true point guards of this generation joins James Harden on a 55-win squad, not necessarily taking shots away from Harden, but touches for sure. If they gel it could be near-impossible to stop, but that’s a fairly big “if”. Defensively Houston will assuredly improve with the addition of the seven-time All-NBA Defensive First Teamer.
2) Can Boston leapfrog Cleveland in the Eastern Conference?
Kyrie Irving’s trade request from Cleveland was a stunner. The fact that the Cavs not only traded the 25-year-old All-Star, but sent him to their biggest threat in the East, is all the more startling. The Irving-for-Isaiah Thomas swap itself brings all sorts of questions (can Irving be “The Man” and win without LeBron James? Will Thomas’ hip hold up in Cleveland?), but add in that the Celtics signed Gordon Hayward as a free agent, and suddenly you’ve got two neck-and-neck franchises.
Boston lost to Cleveland in just five games in the Eastern Conference Finals in May. The additions of Irving and Hayward should in theory even the playing field.
1) Can anyone challenge the Warriors?
Yeah, it was a fun off season, but is it good for the league when it’s arguably more unpredictable than the season itself? Because last year essentially played to chalk, as we got Warriors-Cavaliers Volume Three in the Finals, with Golden State winning rather handily. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are all back in the Bay Area for a squad that’s won 140 games the past two seasons.
Oklahoma City and Houston both got significantly better with their summer additions, while Cleveland and Boston are likely to duke it out in the East. What will hang over all of their heads until June is whether it’s enough to topple the mighty Warriors.