Another NBA season gets underway tonight, and aside from the obvious question — can the Warriors piece together three consecutive championships? — there are several things worth watching. We took a crack at analyzing a handful of them, and how we think they might play out, just ahead of the games on opening night.
Will the Timberwolves overcome the drama to reach the playoffs again?
Minnesota coach and team president Tom Thibodeau has gone out of his way to paint the Timberwolves’ current situation as “not unusual.” But it’s hard to picture anything messier than what the past few weeks have brought this club.
Jimmy Butler, a free agent after this season, requested a trade. The Timberwolves have seemed reluctant to make that happen, confusing and frustrating interested teams. It all bubbled over last week with Butler’s outburst during a scrimmage, raising the question of why on earth the two sides still hadn’t divorced yet. And now, it seems that Butler and Thibodeau will at least start the season together after this awkward tango.
It’s painfully obvious why Thibs wouldn’t want to part ways with the player who was the team’s most valuable last year: His job(s) could be on the line if this season is a failure.
Yet even if off-court chemistry weren’t a problem, other issues remain. Minnesota has looked awful, a concerning sign even if it is a symptom of Butler’s absence. The club owned the NBA’s worst defense by far in the preseason, and three different rotation players this past week said they think the defense likely needs to switch pick-and-rolls more than it has done in order to be successful.
When I asked Thibodeau last week how the club could go about fixing its defense, he was quick to tell me that the Wolves ranked seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency while the starting five was on the floor last season yet 30th (dead last) when their bench was playing. Knowing Thibodeau’s rotational tendencies, if that pattern repeats itself, it will likely result in his starters playing huge minutes — and not all of his starters seem to be on board with that.
No one knows how it’ll all play out. But there figures to be even less room for error now than there was last season, when Minnesota reached the playoffs on the final day of the campaign. So the fact that not everyone is on the same page — and perhaps not even reading from the same book — is problematic heading into an incredibly important year for the franchise.
Will the Lakers be able to run as much as they’d like?
It seems like every NBA coach in recent memory has said that he’d like to get out in transition more than the previous season. But with the Lakers — who have a front office led by the person who ushered in the Showtime era — that strategy will almost certainly go beyond just words.
Los Angeles finished the preseason second among NBA teams in pace, a trend that, should it hold, would allow the Lakers to rely less on their half-court offensive sets. This may take some time to iron out as Lonzo Ball and company adjust to playing alongside LeBron James — and vice versa.
Last week, we analyzed some ways the team could ensure that its pace would be among the league’s fastest. But perhaps the most surefire way for the Lakers to accomplish this is to secure defensive rebounds. And that may be a problem. The Lakers — who lack depth at center and are likely to feature several small-ball lineups this season — wrapped preseason by finishing 23rd among NBA teams in defensive rebound percentage.
L.A. will almost certainly be good in transition this year. It will run some drag screens or an occasional give-and-go, like this one that produced a LeBron-to-Lonzo alley-oop last week.
The Lakers can be successful when they crank up the tempo. The question is whether they’ll force the turnovers and secure the rebounds that allow them to play that style.
Have the Bucks really overhauled their offense?
Last season was likely an exercise in frustration for fans of the Milwaukee Bucks.
On the one hand, the franchise had Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player so multitalented that it’s difficult to put his skill set into words. On the other hand, Antetokounmpo played within an offensive system that didn’t do anywhere near enough to make the game easier for him, particularly with regards to spacing. In last season’s first-round playoff series with Boston, he’d sometimes drive to the basket only to find two extra defenders in the paint because a pair of his teammates didn’t keep their distance and dragged their men into the play by mistake.
If things go right for the Bucks this year, though, those sorts of images will soon feel like a distant memory. And that’s because the team’s offense has shown brisk signs of overhaul.
Milwaukee last year ranked just below league average in attempts that came from the most efficient parts of the floor, taking 64 percent of its shots from inside the restricted area or outside the 3-point line. But this preseason, the Bucks led the NBA in that capacity, taking a whopping 81 percent of their shot attempts from those regions. For context, the Houston Rockets, who avoid midrange shots like the plague, led the NBA last season by taking 82 percent of its shots from the restricted area and behind the 3-point line.
This change comes just months after the team hired former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who has long prioritized four- and five-out lineups that not only spread the floor with great tempo but also seek to make the extra pass to keep defenses off balance.
This Bucks’ roster — with rookie Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova — has far more perimeter threats than it did last season. And because Budenholzer’s teams have always been pick-and-roll heavy, with bigs who can stretch the defense by popping as opposed to just rolling, Antetokounmpo figures to be positioned in the middle of the floor, where opponents will be able to give him considerably less attention. If they do load the paint against him, he’ll have an abundance of sweet-shooting teammates open in the corners for a change. (For what it’s worth, the Bucks managed to connect on an impressive 47 of 92 corner 3-point tries that stemmed from Antetokounmpo’s kick-out passes last season, per Second Spectrum.)
Giannis was already one of the scariest players in the league. Now, finally, he’s part of an offensive attack that may be more worthy of his vast, budding talent.
Can the Spurs really make the playoffs again, despite their injuries and departures?
Some are tip-toeing around this question out of respect for what San Antonio has done in the past, so fine: I’ll be the blunt one. I see almost no way the Spurs reach the playoffs for the 22nd straight time. I stopped just shy of that prediction last year, but I did feel pretty strongly that San Antonio would have a rougher-than-usual campaign, before we knew of the depths of the Kawhi Leonard situation.
This suggestion isn’t exactly groundbreaking, given that Kawhi is now a Raptor, Tony Parker is a Hornet and Manu Ginobili is retired. Perhaps even more of a blow, the Spurs have now lost three guards — all-defensive second teamer Dejounte Murray, 2018 first-round pick Lonnie Walker and backup point guard Derrick White — to long-term injuries, leaving the club thin at the position. (Keep in mind that this is all happening mere months after the Spurs allowed forward Kyle Anderson, a capable ball-handler, to sign with Memphis in free agency.)
The Spurs still have a number of key holdovers who are capable of giving opposing teams headaches, including LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Pau Gasol. And they’ll also have DeMar DeRozan, who came over in the Leonard deal. Coach Gregg Popovich has said that while he and his staff will work to get DeRozan up to speed on the team’s offensive concepts, he won’t try to change his game.
“DeMar is already an All-Star. He’s played a certain way. There’ll be some things we try to add to his game if he’s willing,” Popovich told reporters. “I’m not going to jump on him the way I did [Aldridge]. I tried to turn [Aldridge] into John Havlicek. I think it confused him.” (Aldridge requested a trade two years after joining the Spurs, but the two sides worked the problem out.)
Now, with a limited number of ball-handlers, the club will have to rely on DeRozan to create some looks. Aldridge can shoulder some of that responsibility from the post, too, as he drew more double-teams while posting up than any other player in the league.
What remains worth watching here, given the team’s history, is whether Popovich can squeeze another elite defensive showing out of this unit, despite not having any elite stoppers or rim protectors for once. The Spurs have had an all-defensive team selection in 30 of the past 33 seasons, including each of the past six years.
If San Antonio can cobble together a top-four defensive showing, which it’s done each of the past six seasons, perhaps the Spurs can prove me wrong. But that will be a tall task in light of all these injuries.
How long will Hayward take to jell with the Celtics?
I’m not all that big on analyzing an individual player’s preseason numbers, but I can admit that I was paying some attention to Gordon Hayward’s, given that he’s coming back from an injury.
Those numbers weren’t pretty: 25 percent shooting (5-of-20) for just 21 points in his three games. He showed a little rust on the defensive end at times, too, nearly fouling out of a game against Charlotte. It may take awhile for him to assert himself consistently, but the beauty of his situation is that it’s really not a problem since he plays alongside Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford.
Hayward’s instincts and timing looked just fine, particularly in screen-roll action with Aron Baynes. Watching their chemistry this early on suggests that Hayward will at some point flourish in his minutes with Horford because of how solid a screener he is.
Hayward has always moved well without the ball and can draw attention from the defense with his cutting ability, so he shouldn’t clash much in terms of role with Tatum or Brown. But if he or one of the other wings isn’t seeing enough shot opportunities, it won’t be difficult to find more time for that player with the second unit. All of that leads me to trust that Boston — even if it doesn’t find a rhythm right away to begin the season — will settle into place over time.
The club had the worst effective field goal percentage among NBA teams this preseason. But given all the time that Irving and Hayward missed, and the time it could take for everyone to settle into the new roles they’ll have to adopt, it shouldn’t be a big deal if the Celtics aren’t hot out of the gate. (Toronto should adopt this philosophy, too, with Leonard.) As long as they’re clicking by midseason — and I don’t doubt that coach Brad Stevens will get them there — they’ll be right where they need to be.
Which teams out West can truly push Golden State?
While the Lakers have to be taken far more seriously now with LeBron, let’s be real here: There are only two or three teams in the West that could realistically make the Warriors uncomfortable in a seven-game series.
We all know Houston should be one of those clubs, if only because of what the Rockets did last postseason, when they pushed Golden State to seven games in the conference finals. They might have won the series if not for Chris Paul’s injury or the biblical 3-point shooting drought they experienced at the worst possible time. Yet while that club almost knocked off Golden State, this one is a little different. Exit Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Enter Carmelo Anthony (who played well, and was used very well, in preseason), James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams.
I think Houston’s chances boil down to something relatively simple: If its defense slips past the top 10 as a result of those changes, or finds itself in far more compromising positions after switching this season, it’s hard to see how the Rockets will beat Golden State. The improvement on D was what made them such a tough matchup to begin with, and I fear they might have lost too much on that end to stay on even footing with the Warriors. We’ll see.
The Jazz, on the strength of their stifling, league-best defense, are a compelling pick for many. But just like Houston had to get more consistent on D to make a real run at the West, Utah will likely have to do the same on offense. In particular, the Jazz have struggled to produce steady, consistent offense against such versatile defenses as those of Golden State and Houston, which switch pick-and-rolls repeatedly.
That dovetails with the need for a leap from Donovan Mitchell, who figures to have a greater target on his back after a historically great rookie season at the rim for someone his height. Getting the more aggressive version of Ricky Rubio that we saw in the Oklahoma City series would help Utah’s cause as well.
And while I’m not as high on Oklahoma City — primarily because of the seriousness of Andre Roberson’s injury from last year and his recent rehab setback — I can envision a best-case scenario where the Thunder make noise out West. If Roberson returns anywhere near close to form on defense, he and Paul George would immediately become the best defending wing duo in the league, much like last year. That’s exactly the sort of length you need to effectively defend the best offenses come playoff time. (Looking directly at you, Pelicans.) Also, Nerlens Noel quietly appears to be a great fit at center for OKC’s second-unit defense, while ex-Atlanta guard Dennis Schroder should get ample opportunity to help off the bench — if not start, depending on Russell Westbrook’s status after a recent knee scope.
In a worst-case predicament, either Roberson comes back and isn’t anywhere near as effective or he doesn’t come back at all, limiting this club’s defensive potential — which would be a shame, given that the Thunder probably do have enough scoring to at least hold their own with the conference’s other top dogs. (And they perhaps have fewer questions about offensive fit than last year, when Anthony was on the team.)
It will almost certainly take a Herculean effort to knock off Golden State as the Warriors bid for a three-peat. But there are plenty of other storylines to enjoy in the lead-up to all that.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.