1. What will Kevin Durant’s presence mean to the Golden State Warriors?
Um, the world? Another world title? Dwight Howard, Al Horford, Serge Ibaka, Dwyane Wade, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, among others, also changed teams during the offseason. But there can be only one villain, and that title belongs to the Warriors until further notice. Adding an elite player to an already talented roster is akin to piling on, but if given the chance, all 30 franchises would have reacted accordingly. The only legitimate concern is how easily – and willingly – Durant moves away from his ball-dominant, isolation style. The Warriors are an unselfish bunch built to run, pass, shoot 3-pointers, defend and space the floor. Their joyful, unconventional, uptempo style the past two seasons, combined with their engaging personalities, contributed mightily to their soaring popularity. The front office has no doubt Durant – distanced from the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook – will adapt.
2. Is it safe for Cleveland Cavaliers fans outside the 216 area code to stand up and be counted?
Really, the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks played beautiful basketball last season? But even out here in the 916, 415, 530 and 510 area codes, four months is adequate time. What the Cavaliers and their king, LeBron James, accomplished in a stunning Finals comeback from a 3-1 deficit and Game 7 thriller at Oracle Arena ranks as one of the greatest sports stories ever. There was just something sweet – Warriors fans, stop choking already – about James, an Akron, Ohio, native, returning to his hometown team and willing them to the city’s first NBA championship. That seventh game will forever be remembered for James’ block, Kyrie Irving’s dagger 3-pointer and Kevin Love’s sudden imitation of defensive wizard Kawhi Leonard in the critical late matchup against reigning MVP Stephen Curry. But with Durant now in Oakland, don’t plan on a repeat.
3. Which team will be must-see TV and still possibly miss the playoffs?
That would be the Chicago Bulls. There will be no dearth of drama in United Center with the additions of Rajon Rondo and Wade to a starting lineup that includes Jimmy Butler. All three veterans want the ball, and in end-of-game situations, with whom does Rondo align? The lack of outside shooting remains another issue and coach Fred Hoiberg is feeling pressure to command the locker room, but newcomer Robin Lopez should at least cover for some of Rondo’s poor on-ball defense. That’s the plan, anyway.
4. Can the league and the National Basketball Players Association find labor bliss and decide not to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement before the Dec. 15 deadline?
The recent chatter has been very encouraging. Both parties seem to realize the good (economic) times are rolling and the TV contract dollars are staggering and they would prefer to agree to a new deal sooner rather than later. It appears for now the last thing either side wants is a lockout when the fiscal year ends July 1.
5. Is this the year Phil Jackson returns to relevancy?
After striking gold in the 2015 draft with Latvian youngster Kristaps Porzingis, the New York Knicks’ top executive made a series of risky moves. He brought in aging and oft-injured veterans Rose, Noah and Brandon Jennings, signed valuable swingman Courtney Lee and surprised most longtime Knicks observers when he bypassed his buddy Kurt Rambis and hired Jeff Hornacek as his coach. If Hornacek feels like an odd fit in Manhattan – and on the back pages of Gotham’s saucy tabloids – imagine the heat Jackson will feel if Rose re-injures his knee, Noah is a bust and Carmelo Anthony starts griping about a lack of support. Well. There are always those rumors about Jackson returning to Los Angeles and longtime girlfriend Jeanie Buss.
6. What will generate the most excitement this season in Sacramento?
That’s almost too easy. Golden 1 Center is this season’s superstar, with concerts, the NCAA Tournament, Disney On Ice, etc., crowding the calendar and providing entertainment choices once limited to dumpy Sleep Train Arena or the increasingly congested commute to the Bay Area. The Kings simply are too old and have too many holes to compete for a playoff berth. Now, if Dave Joerger can repeat his Memphis Grizzlies coaching performance, general manager Vlade Divac executes a dynamic trade, and DeMarcus Cousins morphs into a mature teammate and doesn’t miss a significant number of games because of foot issues, we can re-evaluate. No one in Sacramento would complain about an April (postseason) surprise.
7. Whither the Miami Heat?
Even the NBA heavyweights get knocked to the canvas on occasion. Former Lakers/Knicks/Heat coach and current president Pat Riley – who was still recovering from James’ defection to Cleveland – has watched his once-tight relationship with Wade turns to tatters – and Wade depart for Chicago. Riley also has become immersed in a nasty and public medical spat with Chris Bosh about his blood clot issues. The Big Three thus are no longer, and it’s unclear whether Bosh plays again. Riley is 71, but one suspects he has some game left. This will be a trying season, though.
8. Is there really such a thing as an NBA draft expert?
The one-and-done rule has turned the annual selection process into risky business. Consider: My three favorite players from the 2015 draft are Porzingis (fourth overall), Myles Turner (11th) and Devin Booker (13th). This year’s top rookie race appeared to be a duel between the top two picks, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons and the Lakers’ Brandon Ingram, until Simmons gained nearly 30 pounds during the offseason, fractured his foot and is sidelined indefinitely while he recovers from surgery. That leaves Ingram, the latest addition to the Lakers’ youth movement that started last season during Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour. With rookie head coach Luke Walton taking over, the Lakers won’t win a lot, but they will be entertaining.
9. How will the Oklahoma City Thunder recover from Durant’s departure?
General manager Sam Presti certainly didn’t sit back and sulk. He traded Ibaka, coming off a subpar season, to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and rookie Domantas Sabonis, son of Naismith Hall of Fame center and Lithuanian icon Arvydas Sabonis. Additionally – and most importantly – Presti re-signed Westbrook to an ego-soothing contract extension. The All-Star point guard is still seething from the Durant situation and figures to play with even more of an edge, aided by the scoring/defending presence of new backcourt partner Oladipo. The emergence of Steven Adams as a bona fide star enhances the team’s personality, which will count for something, but not as many victories.
10. Will head coaches finally follow Gregg Popovich’s lead and consistently rest rotation players during the regular season?
Just a hunch, and the Warriors’ talent notwithstanding, expect coach Steve Kerr, a Pop disciple, to take a leave of absence if his players express even remote interest in improving upon last season’s record 73-win campaign. Would a healthy Curry have made a difference in last season’s Finals? We’ll never know, but we’ll always wonder.