1. Can Steve Kerr remain healthy enough to give his Golden State Warriors a chance at repeating as champions?
Other than the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, Kerr’s questionable health might be the Warriors’ most formidable opponent. Bad backs are notoriously problematic (see Larry Bird, Phil Jackson, etc.). Nothing against young Luke Walton, but this was a team that performed well for Mark Jackson and was shocked by his firing, yet within a matter of weeks recognized that Kerr’s unique background and offensive schemes offered a ticket to the NBA championship. It’s difficult enough for teams to repeat. Asking the Warriors to win a second consecutive title without their leader is probably asking too much.
2. Which conference produces the 2015-16 champion?
The West is best, again. Commissioner Adam Silver should keep thinking hard about re-seeding for the playoffs. The Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and perhaps the New Orleans Pelicans stack the talent deck in the Western Conference. For years, this seemed like a phase. Now, it’s a phase that never seems to end. It’s time for a change.
3. Is it time to address the grueling 82-game regular-season schedule?
This is long overdue. Strangely, when teams flew commercial and everyone was just happy to earn a decent salary, coaches Jackson, Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, Don Nelson and Jeff Van Gundy whined, dined and chatted their way into living rooms, complaining about an occasional blown call or carping at each other via the airwaves. These days, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich chews on sideline reporters – though when you know him, you know it’s an act – and dares the NBA bosses to do something about the travel, the schedule, the international commitments and the cumulative negative effect on players’ health. Pop and his three star veterans – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – stayed in San Antonio for their preseason opener in Sacramento. If owners and players are willing to make financial concessions, everyone benefits, but primarily the fans.
4. Who will win the Rookie of the Year award?
Karl-Anthony Towns ... assuming the Minnesota Timberwolves finally can catch a break. Minneapolis is a great city, and a great walking city, but there must be something in the water. The T-wolves can’t remember what it’s like to be healthy. That said, the 7-foot Towns was the obvious No. 1 draft pick and a nice fit for a team with talented young guards and swingmen, including Andrew Wiggins, last season’s Rookie of the Year. Towns’ shot blocking, interior presence and athleticism fill a major void.
5. Will Kevin Durant stay healthy?
The Thunder has a new coach, former Florida coach Billy Donovan, and an obvious adjustment from longtime popular coach Scott Brooks. But the concern should be less about Donovan’s transition – he’s one of the few college coaches with the personality and gravitas to make the leap to an NBA head coach – and more about Kevin Durant. The free-agent-to-be is coming off another injury-hampered season that included multiple foot surgeries. Size plus athleticism plus foot problems is a scary combination. See how he plays, then worry about free agency.
6. What is the biggest misconception in the league?
While it’s clear teams in small and mid-size markets work harder to generate revenue, primarily because of limited corporate opportunities, population bases and television markets, it’s time to table the myth that the NBA’s best players sign only with teams in the largest cities. LeBron James returned to Cleveland two summers ago, and the oft-injured Kevin Love re-committed to the Cavaliers during the offseason. Goran Dragic re-signed with the Miami Heat. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green signed multiyear deals to stay with the Warriors. LaMarcus Aldridge rejected one small-market franchise (the Portland Trail Blazers), only to sign with another (San Antonio). Kawhi Leonard also quietly re-signed with the Spurs. Enough, already. Elite franchises are defined by ownership, coaching, fan support and facilities, not the size of the city.
7. Is this the year Phil Jackson becomes relevant again?
Will Jackson return the New York Knicks to glory, or will this be the year he packs up and moves back to his beach home in Southern California? Check box No. 2. James Dolan owns the franchise, the roster is flawed, the ball doesn’t move, the head coach is inexperienced, and the tabloids can be brutal. Mostly, though, Our Friend Phil is learning that coaching a team might be a tad easier than assembling a winner.
8. Was firing Tom Thibodeau the panacea for what ails the Chicago Bulls?
As the Kings can attest, when your owner and front-office executives conflict with the head coach regarding personality and/or philosophy, the relationship is doomed. Thibs lasted longer than most expected. He also will land another head-coaching job faster than almost anyone expected. But his replacement, Fred Hoiberg, has a few elements in his favor. Though he never has been a head coach in the NBA, he played in the league, was a front-office executive and gained valuable experience coaching Iowa State. If Derrick Rose can reclaim a modicum of health –and that’s a huge if – the Bulls could liven up things in the Eastern Conference.
9. Which team surprises the league?
The Orlando Magic. The roster is still very young, but it has depth, balance, an exceptional head coach (Scott Skiles) and a potential Rookie of the Year in Croatian star Mario Hezonja.
10. In the Kings’ final season at Sleep Train Arena, what is the best thing about the schedule?
There are only two Sunday night games, both at home. So, except for those two 6 p.m. starts – Nov. 15 against the Toronto Raptors and Dec. 27 against Portland – Kings games won’t conflict with the latest episodes of “Homeland,” “The Affair” and “Downton Abbey.”