If you go on social media on Sundays, you’ll see people complaining about how unwatchable football is. Everyone is talking about the lower NFL ratings and asking questions on how this could happen to the most powerful sports league in America. Those people, with all due respect, should be quiet because THE NBA SEASON IS HERE! The league with the most fun players, least amount of head trauma, and J.R. Smith doing J.R. Smith stuff things kicked off October 25th and the entire country should be looking forward to this. Forget the election, forget football, and forget the World Series. Basketball is back.
For people unsure on if they should be excited about the 2016-17 NBA season, let’s try to do a quick recap on the NBA offseason. One of the league's five best players joined a team that won an NBA record 72 games to create a Death Star of three point shooting. Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade left the team he played with for 13 years to join up with Rajon Rondo, who is on his fourth team in three years, in Chicago. James Harden and Russell Westbrook signed extensions and are now flushed with cash. Nicolas Batum, Mike Conley, and DeMar DeRozan signed contracts that combine for $418 million. The number one pick overall broke his foot after starting to make Philadelphia fans believe that basketball deserved to be watched again. This is just scratching the surface of what happened this offseason.
To say the NBA has some interesting storylines and questions to answer this season is a bit of an understatement. Basketball, for whatever reason, is unique in its way that it captures narratives that suck people in. While the NBA season is long, it also takes a lot of twist and turns. This column examines some of the best twists and turns that may or may not happen.
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15 How does Boogie Cousins handle his new coach?
Athletes always try to act like they don’t keep up with social media or know what people are saying about them. You know one person that totally knows everything people are saying about him? DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. Heading into his seventh NBA season, Boogie is preparing to play for his sixth head coach. That new coach is David Joerger, who comes to Sacramento after leading an unfathomably injured Memphis Grizzlies team to the playoffs.
Joerger and Boogie are playing nice right now, talking about how excited they are to work together. Still, a slow start to the season might spell trouble for the relationship. No one denies Boogie is talented. The two-time All-Star has a career line of 20.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg, and 2.7 apg. Still, if Cousins and his coach begin to clash again and the team flounders, ownership has to start to wonder if the problem is the six coaches or if the problem is Boogie.
14 How do the new NBA coaches adapt?
Every year, a new crop of NBA coaches make their professional debut. It’s always a mixed bag, as some (Fred Hoiberg) take their lumps and others (Billy Donovan) turn out to be pretty good basketball minds. This season has three rookie coaches: Kenny Atkinson with the Brooklyn Nets, David Fizdale with the Memphis Grizzlies, and Earl Watson with the Phoenix Suns.
Each coach brings a relative amount of coaching experience. Fizdale and Atkinson were both highly regarded assistant coaches that everyone in the NBA expected to be a head coach one day. Watson got to have a trial run with the Suns last year as the interim coach. It’s easy to get swamped as an NBA coach, so seeing how these first-time coaches perform will be interesting.
13 Do total three-point shots rise again?
The last three years have shown a steady rise in the prevalence of the three-point shot. Three seasons ago, the average NBA team attempted 21.5 three point shots a game, which was an NBA record. The following season, the average team took 22.4 threes a game, obviously another record. That record climbed again last season, to 24.1 threes a game. We all remember that the Warriors shot the rest of the league out of the water from deep, but it wasn’t just the Warriors. Everyone took threes!
The NBA realized that the three point shot was simply a much better shot than trying to get to the rim. While three-point shots are obviously harder to hit, the expected return on them was much better. It’ll be interesting to see if that number continues to rise and if there is a ceiling on how high it can get. It’s also only a matter of time until a team tries to zag while everyone zigs and try to become a more efficient offense by trying to score more near the rim. We have seen the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls build lineups not known for shooting so maybe they are those teams.
12 Who makes their first All-Star game?
Every year, NBA fans vote on which players should play in the All-Star game. For some players, making the All-Star team is a tradition at this point. They know that short of injury, they’ll be playing in New Orleans. For others, though, it’s still a goal that they are fighting for. There are many worthy candidates to take the spot of an aging or injured All-Stars.
Some names to watch are last year’s Rookie of the Year Karl Anthony-Towns, last year’s Most Improved Player of the Year C.J. McCollum, and everyone’s favorite freak athlete Giannis Antetokounmpo. Towns' talent is extraordinary and he is already probably better than a handful of last year’s All-Stars. McCollum improved his scoring by 14 points per game last year and he’s still only 25, so it’s not impossible that he continues to improve into a 24 ppg kind of player. Antetokounmpo ended the season throwing up some video game numbers when moving to point guard. Over the March and April, Antetokounmpo posted a line of 19.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, and 7.2 apg. Those are All-Star numbers if he can carry them over.
11 Is Anthony Davis going to punish us all for forgetting how good he is?
It seems like every year we forget about a player because he had a down year. I would like to present the most likely candidate for it this year: Anthony Davis. After an MVP-caliber season and a surprise playoff appearance during the 2014-15 season, Davis came into the season with a lot of buzz. A mix of injuries to himself and teammates sunk the New Orleans Pelicans and people seemed to forget about who Anthony Davis was.
In his supposed “down year,” Davis averaged 24.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, and 2 apg and finished 9th in player efficiency rating. He was still really good but it didn’t register nearly as much because he was doing it for a crappy Pelicans team. This year, the Pelicans should be better (they can’t be more injured) and Davis is going to come back with a vengeance. By PER, this guy had the greatest season by a 21-year-old in history two years ago. Sleep on him at your own peril.
10 Will Pat Riley and the Heat finally pay the piper?
Quietly one of the best ran NBA franchises, the Miami Heat are in a tough spot. After losing Chris Bosh to a health concern and Dwyane Wade bolting back home to Chicago, the Big Three era is 100 percent dead. Even more shocking is the state of the franchise. Losing three hall of famers is never easy to recover from, but looking at the Heat’s roster and it’s draft position, you can see a real reason to panic.
Hassan Whiteside has been a good to great player for the past few seasons but he has just been lavished with a nearly $100 million contract. While it’s clear that the Heat trust him, it’s not impossible to see him regressing after being paid and that contract becoming an albatross. Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow are both intriguing players, Erik Spoelstra is a great coach, and the Heat are always capable of pulling a move out of nowhere, but one injury could really sink this team fast. The cracks in the Heat’s foundation might finally start showing.
9 What are the Bulls doing?
Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo, and Dwyane Wade are exciting players in a vacuum. But if you’re planning to start all three then you might be in for a tough time. The Chicago Bulls current projected lineup of Rondo-Wade-Butler-Taj Gibson-Robin Lopez is a ghastly shooting lineup. Guess who the best three point shooter in that lineup is by last year’s numbers? It’s Rondo! He shot 37 percent from three last year, which is nearly 10 points higher than his career average. I’m sure it wasn’t an outlier year.
If you squint, there is a fun offense here. It involves back door cuts and Wade’s tricky old guy game making up for the fact that most of the starters couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from deep. Still, it’s remarkable that a team would look at the current state of the NBA, one which is embracing shooting and spacing, and go so fully in the opposite direction. Maybe it will work out and we will look at the Bulls as a team that wisely zigged when everyone else zagged. Maybe they will flame out horrifically and Wade and Rondo have to be restrained from fighting each other in the locker room. Either way, everyone should be excited to watch them.
8 Is Dwight Howard done?
One of the most amazing total 180s in public opinion has to belong to the player many fans once referred to as Superman. After looking like one of the most dominant big men in the NBA with the Orlando Magic, the embattled center finds himself on his third team in five years as he opens the season with his hometown Atlanta Hawks. He is also 31 and the aging curve for big men with an injury history isn’t a promising one.
Still, there is a case to be made that Howard could rebound nicely in Atlanta. Dennis Schroder, the Hawks starting point guard, will probably be the best PG Howard has ever played with. Coach Bud is really good and knows how to play towards his players' strengths. Finally, and probably most importantly, Howard really hasn’t been that bad. Last year, he posted a 13.7 ppg, 11.8 apg, and 1.4 apg across 71 games. It’s not peak Howard, but he was still a good player and the Hawks have to hope they can get the most out of him.
7 Which second-year players take a leap forward?
Last year’s draft class turned out to be pretty exciting and it seems like a few of the players could have really high ceilings. From potential All-Star Karl Anthony-Towns, super shooter Devin Booker, and potential franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis, there is a lot to like about the class going forward. The player listed above are great players to keep an eye on, but also keep an eye for D'Angelo Russell, Myles Turner, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Bobby Portis.
One thing to keep in mind with these young players is that many of them are going to be playing for new coaches. Whether that be Russell being freed from Byron Scott’s caveman offense or Porzingis not being wasted by Derek Fisher and Kurt Rambis (I still can’t get over that Rambis got to tell Porzingis what to do), a new coach can change a lot for a young player. The early returns on the 2015 draft are already promising, so it’ll be fun to see how they continue to grow.
6 Did Thibs become even better after a year off?
Fresh from a year-long sabbatical, Tom Thibodeau is back into the NBA and ready to make sure no team ever shoots another corner three again. Coach Thibs was unceremoniously ousted by the Chicago Bulls and people seemed to forget about how great of a coach he was. The 2011 Coach of the Year bided his time and waited for the right opportunity to open and boy did he ever find the right one.
Thibs was named the head coach and president of basketball operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 20th. Pundits everywhere praised the move and it’s easy to see why. When the Bulls let go of Thibs, he was 139 games over .500. He is going to take his renowned coaching skill and see what he can with probably the most talented young team in the NBA. In Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach Lavine, and Kris Dunn, Thibs has his foundation. Everyone should be excited to see what new tricks Thibs has this year.
5 Will the Clippers finally not get screwed?
Death, taxes, and a poorly timed Los Angeles Clippers injury. This is how the basketball gods have worked lately and it’s kind of hard to imagine this not happening again. It’s genuinely amazing how this team seems to have everything go wrong for it at the worst possible moment. Last year, after learning that the leader of the Clippers arch-rival had hurt his knee and may miss their upcoming battle, Chris Paul broke his hand. Not even 24 hours later, Blake Griffin reinjured his quad and just like that the best players on a 53-win team were J.J. Reddick and DeAndre Jordan.
Despite the Clippers luck and mistakes in the playoffs, the team remains really good. It’s not hard to see this team winning more than 55 games and making the Western Conference Finals. Last year, the team was in the top eight in both points scored and points against and that was with only with 35 games from Griffin. The team has played together for a while, Doc is a great coach, and who knows what will happen from now until the playoffs. Let’s just hope disaster doesn’t strike again.
4 Who is the second best team in the east?
Short of a major injury or historic upset, the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James will be playing in the NBA Finals. Still, just because it’s hard to imagine a team truly challenging the defending champs, it’s still fun to try and figure who might grow into a legit threat. According to Vegas, the only other teams in the eastern conference projected to win more than 50 games are the Boston Celtics (52.5) and Toronto Raptors (50.5).
Both of these teams should be really solid, even if they do have flaws. The Celtics probably got the best non-Durant free agent this summer, stealing Al Horford away from the Atlanta Hawks. Horford will the help the Celtics in every way and should mesh well with their young core of players. The Raptors are similar to the Los Angeles Clippers in the sense that they have flaws and might not be able to get past their arch rivals but they know how to play together. Losing Bismack Biyombo probably won’t actually hurt the team and the extra minutes will be well served to go to Jonas Valančiūnas. Keep an eye out for the Indiana Pacers too. Paul George is a bona fide superstar and the team is stocked with solid players.
3 Will the Houston Rockets be able to outscore their way to a better season?
The Houston Rockets will not be good on defense. This isn’t a hot take or a knock on a James Harden (maybe it’s a little bit of knock on Harden). The players they will be using are not good defenders and the coach that they hired, Mike D’Antoni, doesn’t care that much about defense. Patrick Beverley, the team’s best defender, is going to miss at least a month. Still, all of these problems might not matter if the Rockets can score 130 points a game.
Harden is going to be a legitimate MVP candidate. D’Antoni already said he plans to use Harden as his point guard and it’s not impossible to see him average 30 ppg and 10 apg. Their free agent pick-ups can’t stop a runny nose but they can score. Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon will be canning threes at a ludicrous rate. Nene can’t do anything other than score. Watching this team try to outrun every team is going to a blast and one of the most fun parts of this NBA season.
2 Everything regarding the Warriors
Honestly, writing this column and not talking about the Golden State Warriors for more than 2,500 words wasn’t easy. Everything about the NBA is going to be centered around this team. Every time they play it’ll be news. People will talk about them when they lose, especially people that hate them. Don’t be bitter at the Warriors, though, be excited! Super teams are fun, that’s why we all make them in NBA 2K. If you don’t agree, think about how much fun it’ll be to have a villain like the Big Three Miami Heat back in our lives.
To start, the Warriors have a projected over/under of 66.5, which means they would need to win 67 games to “exceed expectations.” In NBA history, 12 teams have won that many games. Vegas is already saying that they view this team as one of the 12 best in NBA history. They are going to scorch teams from deep and their new murderers row lineup of Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-Andre Iguodala-Kevin Durant- Draymond Green is going to leave NBA arenas in rubble. They have questions regarding their depth and their nominal center, but with this much talent, it’s hard not to imagine this team coasting to a championship.
Still, things get interesting when a team is in the fish bowl, so we should all be looking forward to watching this experiment unfold.
1 Can LeBron James catch Michael Jordan’s ghost?
Last year, LeBron James led his Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals (first time ever) to bring his hometown team a title and end Cleveland’s 52-year major sports championship curse. It cemented James as one of the greatest NBA players of all time and it seemed like a summer of fawning of King James was ready to start. Then Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors and all the spotlight shifted.
James and the defending champions have now joined the field. They are just one of 29 other teams trying to stun the new super team. We are saying that a guy that has a legitimate chance at finishing with the most points ever scored AND the most triple doubles ever is just another underdog to the Warriors. I don’t know if James can get past the Warriors, but if he can we all need to really consider that James isn’t just the best player of his generation but stands alone as the greatest player of all time.
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