The biggest storyline heading into the 2017-18 NBA season is obviously whether Cleveland and Golden State will match up in the Finals for a fourth consecutive year. Both teams did what they could to make sure this was a distinct possibility.
Though, other squads made sure to build up their rosters in order to contend. The Oklahoma City Thunder added two potential future Hall of Famers to go with reigning NBA MVP Russell Westbrook. The Houston Rockets now have a star-studded backcourt to contend with Golden State.
And back east, LeBron James’ old running partner in Cleveland is now the face of the Cavaliers’ biggest rivals in the conference.
These are among the top storylines for each NBA team heading into the 2017-18 season.
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving’s team
Kyrie finally got his wish. After existing behind LeBron James’ shadow in Cleveland over the past three seasons, Irving has another team to call his own. He’ll play the Batman to Gordon Hayward’s Robin, with an opportunity to prove he can be the lead dog on a title contending team.
We know the divorce from Cleveland was about as ugly as it gets. But Irving now has a clean canvas upon which to paint. After putting up a career-best season that saw him average 25.2 points and shoot 40 percent from distance, Irving has the capability to dominate. Now, can he do it on a consistent basis? That’s the biggest question right now.
Toronto Raptors: Regression on the table
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry represent one of the best backcourts in the Eastern Conference. The two combined to average nearly 50 points per game last season. That’s not the biggest issue up north. Instead, it’s all about a Raptors’ front office that allowed the supporting cast to regress as a way to get under the luxury tax threshold.
DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker, Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson are all gone from last season’s 51-win team. Toronto will now be relying on recent acquisition C.J. Miles as well as youngsters Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam to step up. It’s not an ideal scenario for a team that’s obviously fallen behind the more serious contenders back east.
New York Knicks: Building through Kristaps
Now that Carmelo Anthony is in Houston, the Knicks are definitely Kristaps Pozingis’ team. That’s not a bad thing considering New York is in full-scale rebuild mode and the former top-five pick is among the best young bigs in the game. It’s just a dramatic shift, especially after former president Phil Jackson actually placed Porzingis on the trade block.
New York isn’t expected to be that competitive this season. The secondary option behind Porzingis is a player in Tim Hardaway Jr., who the Knicks overpaid big time in free agency. It’s also going to be interesting to see how rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina performs out of the gate. At the very least, New York now has an eye on the future. That’s a big deal in the Big Apple (pun intended).
Philadelphia 76ers: High ceiling, low floor
Fresh off signing a five-year, $148 million contract, Joel Embiid takes all of 31 career regular season games into his fourth NBA season. He does so after averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in 2016-17. With rookie Markelle Fultz and second-year player Ben Simmons making their debuts, the talent is most definitely there in Philadelphia.
The issue here is health and inexperience. Can Embiid and Simmons prove themselves to be healthy? Will free agent acquisition J.J. Redick fit in? Can youngster Dario Saric improve off an uneven rookie season? How these questions are answered will play a role in determining whether Philly vies for a playoff spot or loses 50-plus games for the fourth consecutive campaign.
Brooklyn Nets: Brand new backcourt
Outside of young general manger Sean Marks finding a way to get water from a rock, there’s not a whole lot working in the Nets’ favor here. They had to yield the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft as part of the long-ago Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade. The team is also giving up its first-round pick in 2018 as part of said deal. That’s handcuffed Marks a great deal early in his tenure.
Though, the GM did do a solid job finding some talent in two separate trades. The team acquired D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers for a package including Brook Lopez. It also picked up high-priced Blazers castoff Allen Crabbe in what amounted to as a salary dump from Portland. If nothing else, these two provide some upside for a fledgling and bottom-feeding franchise.
Utah Jazz: Picking up the pieces
With Gordon Hayward playing for the Celtics, Utah is left to pick up the pieces following a surprising 51-win season and conference semifinals appearance. It’s a major blow for the Jazz after they did everything in their power to retain Hayward. It also puts the onus on the likes of Rodney Hood, Rudy Gobert and the recently acquired Ricky Rubio to pick up the slack.
Let’s be honest here. Utah is not going to contend with Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City and San Antonio out west. But the 2017-18 campaign presents this team with an opportunity to build a strong and talented core group. How these three players perform will tell us a lot about the future of the Jazz’s franchise.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Three All-Stars looking to mesh
Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are two of the best scorers in modern NBA history. Both are also shoot-first wings. One will be tasked with primarily playing power forward in Oklahoma City’s small-ball lineup. Reigning MVP Russell Westbrook put up a career-best 10.4 assists per game last season. But he’s also a “call yourself first” type of player.
The talent is here for OKC to compete with Golden State out west. It just remains to be seen how these three All-Stars will mesh moving forward. And in what promises to be a stacked Western Conference, early-season struggles could lead to doom. The Thunder can’t possibly expect to contend for a title if they’re forced out from a top-four seed. That’s where these three meshing early and often will be big.
Portland Trail Blazers: Improvement from supporting cast
There’s very little doubt that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum represent one of the top-five backcourts in the NBA. Outside of the two struggling defensively, there’s a major issue here that needs to be addressed in Portland. Do the Blazers have enough of a supporting cast behind these two to take that next step out west?
Really, it starts with the consistency and health of center Jusuf Nurkic upfront. He averaged 15.2 points and 7.1 boards in 20 games after being acquired from Denver. In those 20 outings, the Blazers posted a tremendous 14-6 record. This helped the squad inch into the playoffs. Unfortunately, a late-season leg injury cost him all but 16 minutes in the Blazers’ final 11 games, postseason included. It’s going to be vital for Nurkic and Portland’s supporting cast to remain healthy and perform at a high level in 2017-18.
Denver Nuggets: From pretenders to contenders
The addition of four-time All-Star Paul Millsap was an absolute boon for Denver. This isn’t an organization that usually attracts top-end fee agents. Being able to lure him in from Atlanta and a whole host of other suitors will be big for the team’s prospects moving forward. Millsap now teams up with budding young star Nikola Jokic as well as veterans Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried to form a potent frontcourt.
In the backcourt, Denver will be relying on second-year guard Jamal Murray and the recently extended Gary Harris. Add in the presence of the enigmatic Emmanuel Mudiay and Will Barton out on the wing, and there’s every reason to believe Denver can contend for a top-five playoff seed out west. It will definitely be interesting to see how this all comes together.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The three new Wolves
Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague. That’s an absolutely tremendous trio to add to the mix with franchise cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Really, there’s too much talent on this Wolves roster to think that it won’t be able to contend for the 50-win mark in 2017-18.
More than anything, it’s going to be all about the progression of the recently extended Wiggins. If he can somehow morph into a better all-around player from the one-dimensional role he’s taken on thus far in his career, the Wolves future is going to be absolutely bright.
Butler is an All-NBA performer. Towns has proven himself to already be among the best bigs in the game after just two seasons. Teague is a former All-Star. Gibson is an elite-level interior defender. It’s now going to be vital for Minnesota to see progression from Wiggins. Should that happen, we’re looking at a potentially surprising conference title contender.
Washington Wizards: Otto’s time to shine
In order to take the next step towards conference title contention, Washington needs Otto Porter Jr. to step up even more behind the star-studded backcourt of Bradley Beal and John Wall. The former No. 3 pick averaged career bests in points per game (13.4) and rebounds per game (6.4) last season. He also ranked fourth among NBA players with a 43 percent three-point mark.
This led to Washington matching Brooklyn’s four-year, $106.5 million offer to the then restricted free agent during the summer. Now being paid like a star, it’s time for Porter to turn himself into a third star for the Wizards. That includes inching closer to 20 points per game and showing more consistency. Last season saw him put up single-digit points in 28 percent of his outings. That won’t be acceptable with the substantial raise he received.
Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder’s team
Gone are former All-Stars Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford from Atlanta’s 60-win 2014-15 team. Millsap was the last to leave this past summer, forcing the Hawks to build around a young point guard in Schroder who has never been more than a complementary player. How the 24-year-old guard handles this new role will determine whether Atlanta earns a playoff spot for an 11th consecutive season.
Last year saw the German put up career bests across the board. He averaged 17.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists. Schroder also shot at a 45 percent clip from the field and put up a solid 49 percent effective field goal mark. In order for Atlanta to surprise the masses this season, he’s going to have to take it to a completely different level. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
Miami Heat: Overpaying for role players
After putting up a 30-11 record in the second half last season, Miami is not only looking to make the playoffs in 2017-18. It’s looking for home-court advantage and a deep run in the postseason. That’s why the team exhausted $145 million combined to re-sign Dion Waiters and James Johnson while bringing in free agent Kelly Olynyk.
That’s a whole lot of cash for three role players. But it also makes Miami a much deeper team. The stars here are Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. That’s already known. Waiters brings scoring to the perimeter with Dragic. Meanwhile, Olynyk can stretch the court from the inside and Johnson grinds with the best of them in the low-post. It’s an interesting mix, one that could work very well.
Charlotte Hornets: Getting Kemba some help
Charlotte went out there to help find Walker the supporting cast to help the franchise turn things around. It started with former Kentucky standout Malik Monk No. 11 overall in June’s draft. Monk and Walker seem to be the perfect score-first backcourt.
As Walker was averaging a career-best 23.2 points and shooting at a 40 percent mark from distance last season, Monk was dominating SEC competition as a freshman to the tune of nearly 20 points per game. He’s instant offense, something that will come out big time early in the guard’s career.
Meanwhile, Charlotte made an intriguing trade for eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard. While offense-limited at this point in his career, Howard did put up a five-year best 12.7 rebounds per game last season. His presence should give Charlotte more possessions, enabling these two to score with the best of them. In a wide-open Eastern Conference, that could be good enough for a bottom-two playoff seed.
Orlando Magic: Frank Vogel’s defining season
We’re willing to give Vogel a mulligan for his first season in Orlando. Here’s a head coach that led his former Pacers squad to the playoffs in five of his six seasons in Indiana. He’s a respected basketball mind. But progression from Orlando in his second season needs to be the name of the game here.
It has to start with Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton upping their games from up-and-down performances up to this point in their careers. They simply must be the reason Orlando turns it around after failing to win more than 35 games in each of the past five seasons. Equally important, Vogel must find a way to help center Nikola Vucevic return to pre 2016-17 form. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t play an instrumental role in this team’s progression. That’s going to be on Vogel.
San Antonio Spurs: The point guard situation
With Tony Parker out until at least December. The recently re-signed Patty Mills will be sharing time with youngster Dejounte Murray. Considering Parker’s regression at this late stage in his career, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He’s unlikely to play north of 25 minutes per game when he returns from injury.
The larger issue here is actually finding a solid point guard situation to run the team’s offense. As much as everyone wants to focus on Kawhi Leonard’s injury as one of the primary reasons San Antonio was swept out by Golden State in the conference finals last season, its point guard play, sans the injured Parker, was a complete mess. If Mills and/or Murray fail to step up early this season, it could doom the Spurs’ hopes of earning a division title and a top-two seed.
Houston Rockets: Paul and Harden, the odd couple
Two ball-dominant guards on the same team. Two guards who have a less-than-stellar individual history against the three-time defending Western Conference champion Warriors. It’s most definitely going to be an interesting dynamic as Chris Paul and James Harden look to unseat Golden State out west this season.
Harden ranked second among NBA players with 99.2 touches per game last season. Paul himself came in eighth at 86.2 per. Some will point to Kevin Durant seamlessly transitioning to the Warriors last season as a case study. That’s until we realize that neither he nor Stephen Curry are on-ball centric players. It was a match made in heaven.
With the Rockets, this seems like they’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Whether it translates to success remains to be seen. But one of these two stars will have to change his game dramatically in order for this to work.
Memphis Grizzlies: Chandler Parson’s bust factor
If the Grizzlies are going to have any chance to once again earn a playoff spot this season, it’s going to rest squarely on the health of Parsons. Fresh off signing a four-year, $94.4 million deal, Parsons averaged a career-low 6.4 points in 32 games last season. Most of this can be attributed to injury. But let’s face it, the Grizzlies knew Parsons’ injury history prior to signing him. He missed 36 games in his two seasons with Dallas.
Despite boasting a solid duo in Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Memphis will need Parsons to turn it around big time if it hopes to contend in the Western Conference. That includes playing a vast majority of the season injury free and duplicating his career high of 16.3 points per game from 2013-14.
New Orleans Pelicans: Will DeMarcus Cousins finish the season in Nola?
We’re not too sure how the Cousins-Anthony Davis duo is going to mesh in New Orleans. The sample size was just too small last season after the Pelicans acquired Cousins from Sacramento in February. These are two of the most dominant big men in the game. But the Pelicans posted a pedestrian 9-8 record with the two on the court together last season.
More so than Alvin Gentry’s job being on the line here, Cousins is set to become a free agent following the 2017-18 campaign. If this experiment proves to be a failure, there’s a decent chance New Orleans will look to move Cousins prior to February’s trade deadline.
It yielded youngster Buddy Hield and what ultimately became a top-10 pick in this year’s draft for the enigmatic center. Needless to say, the team will look to get something in return if it becomes apparent Cousins doesn’t fit into the long-term future or wants to move on to another city.
Dallas Mavericks: All about Dennis Smith Jr.
We’re definitely excited to see what this former North Carolina State star has planned for us as a rookie. Smith drew rave reviews leading up to the 2017 NBA Draft, ultimately finding himself selected No. 9 overall by Dallas. The hope here is that he can take over a point guard position that’s been a black hole in Big D over the past couple seasons.
More than anything, Dallas is looking to the future here. Sure Dirk will play at least one more season. But the future is all about Smith Jr. and 2016 high-priced free agent acquisition Harrison Barnes. How those two work together in 2017-18 will tell us a lot about the future of this suddenly rebuilding team.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Isaiah Thomas’ injury
As this point, Cleveland’s regular season performance matters very little. The team proved last season that it doesn’t need home-court advantage to run roughshod over Eastern Conference opponents. Even then, the hip injury Thomas is rehabbbing from could have wide-ranging ramifications moving forward.
Thomas’ injury is more severe than originally thought. Heck, it almost ruined the trade that sent Irving to Boston. Now expected back some time in January, it’s all about former MVP Derrick Rose and the recently signed Dwyane Wade holding down the fort until Thomas returns. Should that happen, Cleveland will be in a good position heading into the playoffs. It would then be all about how Thomas responds to a return to the court. Hip injuries are tricky, especially for someone who relies on his physical ability out on the perimeter.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis and Co. making strides
We’re potentially looking at a top-four seed out of Milwaukee in 2017-18. Depending on how the aforementioned Thomas injury plays out, there’s even a chance the Bucks could unseat Cleveland in the Central Division. But before we get ahead of ourselves here. A lot has to happen.
We already know Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most dynamic players in the NBA. He’ll likely take that next step to top-five status this season. Instead, it’s all about whether Jabari Parker can return healthy from the second torn ACL of his career. Khris Middleton must continue to provide consistent scoring out on the wing. Meanwhile, 2016-17 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon will have to progress from last season’s solid performance. Should all this happen, the Bucks are likely looking at a 50-plus win season.
Indiana Pacers: Is Myles Turner a franchise cornerstone?
With Paul George’s ugly divorce being finalized, the Pacers now turn to the future. Instead of said future coming via the players acquired for George, it’s going to be this young big man that has to step up. Turner, a top-11 pick from back in 2016, is one of the most skilled young bigs in the game. Last season saw him averaged 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting at 51 percent from the field. He’s just 21 years old.
Sure the Pacers would like to see progression from the recently acquired Victor Oladipo. The team is also said to be high on rookie first-round pick T.J. Leaf. But it’s going to be on Turner to prove that he’s a franchise catalyst. While such progression wouldn’t likely lead to a playoff berth, it would put the Pacers’ franchise in good standing moving forward.
Chicago Bulls: The lengthy rebuild begins
Jummy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo are all gone from Chicago. That experiment with three former All-Stars was a downright failure. And instead of circling the wagon with a mediocre team, the Bulls decided to blow the whole thing up. That’s most definitely not a bad thing. But it will lead to some major growing pains early.
At 10.6 points per game last season, Nikola Mirotic is the team’s leading returning scorer. He’s going to be aided by youngsters Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, both of whom were acquired in the Butler trade. Add in rookie top-seven pick Lauri Markkanen, and there’s some nice young talent here.
It’s unproven. It’s ways away from contention. And fans in the Windy City have to be prepared for some major struggles during what promises to be a 50-plus loss 2017-18 campaign.
Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy’s future
Both the GM and head coach of the Pistons, Van Gundy sold the farm when he acquired Tobias Harris and his $16 million annual salary from Orlando during the 2015-16 campaign. That came immediately prior to signing Andre Drummond to a five-year, $127 million deal. The idea was to build this team around these two guys moving forward. Detroit has combined to lose 22 more games than its won since.
With Drummond’s future in Detroit not a certainty, the Pistons added former Celtics guard Avery Bradley in a trade this summer. This represents a decent one-through-three tandem It also forced Van Guny to renounce the rights to then restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, enabling him to sign with the Lakers. These are the decisions that will define whether Van Gundy himself has a future in Detroit beyond the 2017-18 campaign.
Golden State Warriors: The best team ever?
It might be a stale question. It’s been asked prior to each of the past two seasons. Are these Warriors the best team in the history of the NBA? On paper, a 207-39 regular season record since Steve Kerr took over as head coach leads us to believe this is the case. With two titles in the past three years, that’s magnified even further.
Now, take the following into account. Kerr believes two-time MVP Stephen Curry is more of a difference-maker on offense than his former teammate, Michael Jordan. Fellow former MVP Kevin Durant says the team’s “swag level” is through the roof heading into the season.
After retaining pretty much its entire core group, Golden State was also able to add sharp-shooting bench options Nick Young and Omri Casspi in free agency. With a 31-2 record in their past 33 meaningful games, the Warriors can be absolutely dominant. But if they can’t win a third title under Kerr this season, none of that will really matter.
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake’s squad
The Clippers made it more than clear. They didn’t even really try too hard to retain Chris Paul, instead sending him to the Rockets in a trade for north of a half dozen players. Immediately after that Doc Rivers and Co. inked Blake Griffin to a record-breaking five-year, $173 million deal. He’s now the face of a franchise that had in the past been relegated to second-tier status in the Western Conference.
Joining the injury-plagued Griffin in the Clippers is another strong veteran presence in the form of Danilo Gallinari. Together, they will form a potent frontcourt with holdover DeAndre Jordan. Whether that type of mismatch is enough to mask an offense-challenged backcourt remains to be seen. But at least Los Angeles has a different look after failing to reach the conference finals in each of Rivers’ first four seasons manning the bench.
Sacramento Kings: Findind a nice mix with Dave Joerger
We absolutely love what Sacramento did during the offseason. Adding the likes of veterans George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter will do wonders for the otherwise young squad. Though it’s the presence of young sharpshooter Buddy Hield that should have fans in California’s capital city excited for basketball once again. He’s one of the best pure shooters in the game.
If that weren’t enough, the Kings were able to pick up rookies De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles in the first round of June’s draft. All three bring something different to the table and should be contributors early and often. This might very well be enough for Sacramento to contend for a bottom-two playoff spot in 2017. Vlade definitely smoked it this offseason.
Los Angeles Lakers: Ball’s time to shine
Even before selecting Ball No. 2 overall in June, Los Angeles made it clear that the Los Angeles native was going to be their future. Led by new president Magic Johnson and fellow first-year GM Rob Pelinka, the Lakers traded former top-five pick D’Angelo Russell. This cleared a path for Ball to take over the franchise once he was inevitably selected.
Unless you’re Ball’s father, expectations aren’t high for the 2017-18 season. Instead, it’s going to be all about how Ball meshes with fellow youngster Brandon Ingram. The Lakers want to know if they have two true building blocks before hitting free agency next summer. That’s the biggest key to the season in Hollywood.
Phoenix Suns: Talented, but unproven
Devin Booker can flat out score. Rookie No. 4 pick Josh Jackson is going to be a tremendous asset to Booker out on the wing. This has the potential to be one of the best perimeter scoring tandems in the NBA three years from now. Meanwhile, fellow youngster Marquese Chriss will look to improve off a tremendous rookie season in teaming up with Alex Len inside.
For the Suns, it’s more about these four players than anything else. We have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen with veterans Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. Maybe the Suns find a way to turn them into future assets. After all, Tyler Ulis seems to be the point guard of the future here. Either way, Phoenix has an incredibly talented core. It might not mean competitiveness in 2017-18, but the future is bright.