Sunday, July 14, 2024

NBA’s 20 most intriguing storylines: Victor Wembanyama has arrived; Dame Time in Milwaukee; 76ers’ soap opera

The 2023-24 NBA season tips off a week from today, and, as usual, there are plenty of juicy storylines to follow between now and April. Below I have listed the 20 teams and/or players that I am most intrigued to track throughout the regular season. 

Perhaps you’ll notice one omission that you might consider glaring: Ja Morant and the Grizzlies. It’s a big story, no doubt. Morant being out for the first 25 games (suspension) puts Memphis in a tight spot in a deep Western Conference where every game counts. I am curious to see how much Marcus Smart helps. But to be honest, personally, I just don’t find the Grizzlies all that interesting even with Morant on the court. Without him, they’re not anywhere near the top of my League Pass list. 

With that in mind, here are the 20 storylines I’ll be most closely following this season. You’ll notice they are not numbered. That’s by design. This list is in no particular order. 

Victor Wembanyama has arrived

How good will Victor Wembanyama be as a rookie? We know he will provide nightly examples of freakish abilities, but might he actually be an All-Star right away? Might be be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year this season? Will the Spurs even play him enough to put him in the running for such accolades? It will be fascinating to watch this play out, but no matter what, Wemby makes the Spurs must-see TV. 

Dame Time in Milwaukee

Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are a match made in basketball heaven. Good luck stopping this pick-and-roll tandem. Milwaukee’s half-court offense will be juiced considerably by Liillard, but will the defensive decline that comes with the loss of Jrue Holiday offset Lillard’s scoring/spacing impact? We shall see. 

New-look Celtics

Major changes for a Boston team that has not been able to get over the championship hump. Marcus Smart and Robert Williams are out, Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis are in. The Celtics are going to deploy supreme-spacing lineups that — with Holiday at the point of attack, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown switching all over the court and Porzingis and Al Horford protecting the paint — could be next to impossible to score on.  

Denver’s title defense

The Nuggets rarely make national news and that didn’t change this summer even after they won the title. If you polled 100 people, I doubt the Nuggets would come out as the major favorite to win it all again. No big moves. The Celtics, Bucks and Suns all made blockbusters. All Denver did was lose Bruce Brown

I will be interested if the Nuggets decide to prove a point this regular season and just go scorched earth, much like the Warriors did in 2015-16 when they won 73 games after their first title was regarded with, shall we say, a bit of national scrutiny. The collective attitude toward’s a title I would classify more as apathy than scrutiny, but still, if the Nuggets feel relatively ignored, they wouldn’t be wrong. 

Thunder set to roll

OKC is still a move or two away from contention, but this is a team that is, finally, ready to win right now. Shai Gilegous-Alexander is a legit MVP candidate. Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey are awesome. Chet Holmgren is OKC’s version of Wembanyama, a supremely skilled seven-footer with future DPOY chops. 

If Sam Presti so desires, he can start cashing in a few of the zillion draft picks that he has spent years stockpiling to build this team out further around the deadline. Watch out for the Thunder. They’re going to play hard every single night. They put maximum pressure on you on both ends. They could realistically be this year’s Kings, a fringe play-in team to a top-four seed overnight. 

Long-game Lakers

Just like their Crypto.com Arena housemate Clippers, the Lakers have one goal for the regular season: Get to the playoffs with the health of their two superstars intact. The Lakers have good continuity after bringing back Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, and they rounded out their rotation with Gabe Vincent, who can be the closing playoff point guard if D’Angelo Russell proves too defensively problematic. 

But again, none of this matters if LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis is hurt, or even less than 100%, come playoff time. The Lakers will approach the regular season as a slow burn, hoping to fully ignite at just the right time, but they can’t sleepwalk either. The West is too deep. Nobody wants to have to go through the play-in if they can at all avoid it. Rob Pelinka has put together a deep, versatile collection of guys who should be able survive at least short stretches without LeBron or AD. But those two don’t want to miss long stretches, and certainly not both at the same time. 

Super-team Suns

Phoenix is building its title hopes by the super-team blueprint: Three superstars — though if you don’t want to call Bradley Beal superstar, I understand — at the expense of depth. No more Chris Paul orchestrating offense, but offense won’t be, or shouldn’t be, a problem. Pinning the big-man responsibilities of a top-tier title contender on Jusuf Nurkic, however, feels shaky. Let’s see if Phoenix defends, if they can make enough 3-pointers to stay in the math game, and if, most importantly, they can stay healthy. 

Warriors being written off?

Don’t make this mistake. The Warriors still arguably have the best starting lineup in the league; the numbers have supported this for the last few years. Chris Paul is going to make a big-time difference organizing the second unit while also serving as a top-of-the-floor conductor for the off-ball movement of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in non-Draymond minutes. Jonathan Kuminga is a swing player. He could really pop. Golden State is small, as always, but this team is still a legit title threat. 

Sixers soap opera

Until James Harden is traded, this is going be an ongoing drama drip in Philadelphia. Will Harden play? If he does, will he play hard? It’s hard to see the Sixers remaining in contention for a title with whatever they may get back for Harden, who isn’t worth nearly what he thinks he is. Then again, for my money, it’s equally hard to see them competing with Harden, who crapped out when it counted last season. What a mess. 

Knicks make a trade?

Reports are out that New York is “monitoring” the Karl-Anthony Towns situation in Minnesota, whatever that means. They were perhaps saving their chips for a Giannis Antetokounmpo play, but that seems like a dead end at least for the time being with Lillard joining forces in Milwaukee. You will probably hear Joel Embiid’s name connected to the Knicks more than once if this Sixers debacle becomes absurd. The Knicks are in a good place. They’re a good team. They have the assets to make the jump to a great one. It is not a matter of will they make a big move; it’s only a matter of when. 

Clippers’ last stand?

When the Clippers traded Shai Gilegous-Alexander, who has become a superstar, along with FIVE(!) future first-round picks and two more potential pick swaps to pair Paul George with Kawhi Leonard back in 2019, they did so with the expectation that it would net the franchise its first championship. Instead, they have yet to even reach the NBA Finals. Leonard and George can both become free agents next summer. I would bet on the Clippers re-signing these guys, but the possibility surely exists that this a last-stand situation. 

Miami regression?

It will be hard for the Heat to go backwards from the play-in, which is where they started the postseason last year, but they can certainly regress from where they finished the postseason, which was three wins from claiming a championship. The Heat struck out on Lillard. They lost Gabe Vincent and Max Strus. Is Tyler Herro coming back healthy enough to keep this team in contention? Most don’t believe so. But the Heat have long been in the business of making “experts” look foolish. 

Dallas’ dynamic duo

The Mavericks traded for Kyrie Irving last season with the intention of vaulting themselves into the title conversation. Instead they fell into the lottery. Irving comes back this season on a three-year, $126 million deal, but the Mavericks didn’t really have a choice after they traded for him and lacked the cap space to replace him. Dallas made solid signings in Grant Williams and Seth Curry, and first-round pick Derrick Lively could help if he gets up to speed somewhat quickly. But in the end, this is all about Luka Doncic and Irving and whether their offense is enough to overcome a lot of Dallas flaws. 

Trae Young referendum

Young is arguably one of the 10 most productive and, on any given night, dangerous offensive players in the league, but the honeymoon of Atlanta’s 2021 conference-finals run is over. Atlanta has been a play-in team the last two seasons and there’s a real question brewing as to whether Young, as a defensive liability and an erratic, and frankly overrated, 3-point shooter, can be the best player on a serious team, as opposed to one that merely possesses a puncher’s-chance on any given night. 

Ant’s superstar ascension

Ant, of course, would be Anthony Edwards, the budding superstar of the Minnesota Timberwolves who is coming off a summer — with the disappointing U.S. World Cup team — in which he flashed the promise of being one of the league’s future pillars. But is he good enough, at this point, to make this Minnesota thing work? The Rudy Gobert spacing problem isn’t going away. Karl-Anthony Towns might end up traded. But there’s also the possibility that the Wolves take off. If that happens, it will be because Edwards takes a big step toward superstar status. 

Healthy Zion Williamson

The second Zion gets hurt, the Pelicans become an afterthought. But until that happens, New Orleans will be one of the most intriguing teams in the league. They were 17-12 with him in the lineup last season and looked like a real threat. This team is ready to win on a significant level if Zion can somehow stay on the court consistently. 

Is Ben Simmons back?

Color me dubious, but Simmons did look pretty good in the preseason and he’s going to be back where he’s comfortable, at the point, rather than trying to figure out his place running around randomly off ball trying harder to not be a hinderance than to actually be a force. I’ve got a sneaky good feeling about Simmons showing out this season, and this is coming from someone who never believed that he was, even at the height of his unique powers, all he was cracked up to be. 

Kings confirmation

Nobody is saying last season was a fluke for the Kings, who finished as the West’s No. 3 seed and took the Warriors to seven games in the first round. But it needs to be validated. The Kings enjoyed disproportionate health last season, and the defense still figures to be an issue. Last year was house money. This season the Kings have real expectations. That’s a different beast, and the Western Conference, as we know, is loaded. 

Don’t sleep on Cleveland

The Cavs answered one of their biggest issues with a legit floor-spacing shooter who can play the small-forward spot in Max Strus, who is also a more-than-capable team defender. Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland are an electric duo, and they’re uniquely supported as a small backcourt with the two bigs in Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. I think the Cavs, after bowing out early in last year’s playoffs, could end up a top-three seed if they stay healthy. 

Scoot era begins in Portland

Don’t be surprised if the Blazers are a better team than most expect them to be. They will ultimately end up tanking, as the Jazz did last year, but this isn’t a total youth movement in Portland. Jerami Grant. Deandre Ayton. Malcolm Brogdon. Robert Williams III. Matisse Thybulle. These are good, to very good, NBA players who are going to be paired with three explosive young talents in Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe and, of course, the main attraction, Scoot Henderson

Henderson has looked like the real deal every minute he’s been on an NBA court, from Summer League to the preseason. His shooting needs to become more reliable, but off the catch it already looks good from 3 and his pull-up game is pure. For the opportunity he’s going to get every night, I would argue Henderson is the best value bet for Rookie of the Year. The Blazers made the right call by not trading him just to keep bonking their heads against the glass ceiling of a Lillard-led team. 

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