Can Chris Paul and James Harden coexist?
When Chris Paul basically forced the Clippers to trade him to the Rockets, everyone immediately designated Houston as the top challenger for Golden State in the West. However, with all the depth the Rockets had to give up to get him, they’ll have to bank on Paul and Harden working out. But will it?
In theory, you’d think so. Harden and Paul are both great spot-up shooters, and can both do a ton of good things with the ball in their hands. I just wonder if there will be enough ball to go around between the two of them. Harden, especially, likes to slow the game down and work through something in the half-court. If he tries to do so, will Paul let him, or will he want to play at a higher pace, or possibly run the show himself?
Everyone’s going to be paying attention to this pairing all season, and whether or not it works will become evident pretty quickly. The Rockets will win games, sure, but that’s no longer the big goal. If Harden and Paul can’t mesh, the Rockets could see Paul walk in free agency next season, and find themselves back at the drawing board.
Which team in the East will be tapped as the biggest challenger to the Cavs?
The sexiest team to pick out of the East this season has to be Boston. They somehow improved on their squad from a year ago by getting rid of Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving as well as bringing in Gordon Hayward as a free agent. That being said, this is still LeBron James’ conference. His team hasn’t missed the finals in the last seven seasons, and it’s not unfair to keep picking his teams to do so until a team actually stops them.
A year ago, as the regular season was winding down and Boston was making their run for the top overall spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, some people started to whisper that the Celtics could actually beat the Cavs in a best-of-seven series. Others thought the Raptors had a shot after trading for Serge Ibaka, and there were some who really wanted a Cavs second round matchup with Milwaukee. Cleveland ended up playing two of those teams and smashed them into the ground; the Raptors were utterly powerless and the Celtics, who lost an already-injured Isaiah Thomas, looked like a tenth of a step above utterly powerless.
As we move forward into this season, I’m already wondering who’s going to get tapped next. It’ll almost certainly be the Celtics, which might make sense given their new team. Personally though, I don’t think they’ll have the depth or the chemistry to best LeBron quite yet. The Bucks are still to young, so we’ll have to wait a while for Giannis to get his chance to shine in the playoffs. However, the Washington Wizards are a prime candidate. They stood toe-to-toe with the Celtics in seven games in last seasons Eastern Conference semifinals, and they paid a pretty penny to keep most everything from a year ago intact. John Wall is my dark horse MVP candidate*, and if the Wizards can avoid the sluggish start they had a season ago, I think they could be potentially the second or even first seed out of the East this year.
Will they beat the Cavs in the playoffs? No. But that won’t stop people from talking themselves into it.
*Here’s an insane stat on John Wall, per basketball-reference: in last season’s playoffs, LeBron led all players with 141 assists that he made through 18 games. The second leading player in that category? John Wall, who had 134 in just 13 games. Nobody else came even close to that.
How drastically does Jimmy Butler change the Timberwolves?
Everyone’s sexy pick to be a low seed in the West a year ago wildly underperformed, but then Minnesota responded by trading for Jimmy Butler at pennies on the dollar. The real question, though, is does this drastically improve Minnesota? The main issues with this team a year ago were youth and defense. And while one of those things will sort itself out over time, whether or not they’ll be better defensively remains up in the air.
Butler helps, sure. He’s a great defender who initially earned playing time for his abilities in that respect, even if he’s admitted that his defense has slipped some. But can Butler, as well as head coach Tom Thibodeau, get guys like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to up their effort on the defensive end? Wiggins has been known as a scorer ever since he entered the league, and while Towns is an otherworldly talent, one of the things currently keeps him from being in the upper echelon of NBA players is his lack of defense.
To echo a sentiment that people had a year ago, it’s weird that a Tom Thibodeau team is having so much trouble. Bringing in a high-energy defender like Butler helps, but whether or not it’ll only be marginally remains to be seen.
Will this be the year Philly turns the corner?
The hype machine surrounding the 76ers is currently operating at full capacity. Joel Embiid played lights out in preseason, Ben Simmons is the early favorite for rookie of the year, oh, and they also got that Markelle Fultz kid in the draft. Philly fans, and really just NBA fans in general, are dying to watch the 76ers’ young core finally get to share the court together and reap the rewards of #TheProcess. Even with Embiid’s injury history, Fultz…questionable development, and having a group of players who’ve barely played in the NBA for very long, let alone together, there’s a lot of potential for fun in Philly.
Will this be the year they turn the corner, though? It’s a tough ask of a young group to immediately go out and win now. Part of it, too, depends on what you’d define as turning the corner. Is it making the playoffs? If so, they probably will. The East is full of bad teams that have incentive to tank. (And just bad teams. Ex: Nets, Brooklyn.) However, if turning the corner means actually looking like they’ll be a legit contender in the next few seasons, probably not. Embiid has that spotty injury history I mentioned, and Simmons and Fultz actually have to log some regular season NBA minutes before we can count on them to turn into superstars.
The time for waiting on the 76ers to be fun is over. The time for waiting on seeing if they’re good or not remains, for now.
What happens if the Thunder don’t work out?
You could really lump this question together with all the teams that added huge new pieces in the offseason, like the Rockets, Celtics, Cavs, Wolves, etc. However, I think the Kevin Durant departure and OKC selling out on Paul George and Carmelo Anthony makes them the most interesting in this regard.
For one, Russell Westbrook has already been locked up with an extension. This means that if the other two leave, you’re not looking at a total rebuild. That’s fine, unless the reasons George and Anthony leave is directly related to Westbrook. Considering Russ was apparently the only part of OKC that Kevin Durant liked before he left, that’s highly unlikely, but you never know. Finding the right guys to surround Westbrook with that can win a championship might be more difficult than getting two superstars on the cheap.
Then there’s also the ripples from that Durant thing. Sam Presti loves to preach about Oklahoma City’s culture. It’s why he went after George and Anthony, convinced that his organization’s culture could sway them into staying long-term. However, if the team doesn’t work out and they leave, can his organization and his perceived culture take another gut punch like that? It’d be a fascinating scenario to watch play out.
These are all long term questions, and they’ll all be answered with time. For now though, let’s just revel in the best sports league on the planet being back. Long live the NBA.