Top Storylines That Will Define 2017-18 NBA Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 9, 2017

Top Storylines That Will Define 2017-18 NBA Season

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    The table's set for a tantalizing 2017-18 NBA season, which means we'd better get familiar with the menu before it starts Oct. 17.

    Not so much in the sense of laying out title favorites and MVP candidates du jour but more in terms of narratives. What will we chew on for the next eight months? Which relentlessly overblown and undercooked stories will give us gastrointestinal distress, leading to feverish hallucinations and nights spent hunched in pitiable, powerless agony over the porcelain...

    The metaphor has broken down.

    At any rate, we all know injuries tend to dictate a good portion of every NBA season. The healthy thrive, while the banged-up fail to meet their potential. We'll leave those angles alone. 

    Instead, we'll hit on the key conversations and questions that'll spark discussion and define what should be a phenomenal upcoming campaign—albeit one whose outcome might already be determined.

    Because Warriors.

Is More Always More?

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    The storyline that defined the 2017 offseason, rampant talent consolidation, was procedural in nature.

    What do we have to give up to get Paul George?

    How do the mechanics of a Chris Paul opt-in and trade need to work?

    It was "How can we?" rather than "Are we sure we should?"

    Such was the transactional desperation created by the Golden State Warriors' own indomitable collection of talent. It made sense to approach star acquisitions that way; if a difference-maker was available, you figured out how to get him and saved fit concerns for later.

    Well, later is now. Teams that took on huge names will spend the season tinkering and managing egos as they try to make these new fits work. Some will, and some won't. And that will not only determine this season's league hierarchy but also potentially shape rosters for several years to come. As an example, just imagine what might happen if George, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook reach the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Might they all stick together for the foreseeable future?

    What if the chemistry never materializes, Melo loses another step, Russ decides he doesn't like sharing and OKC finishes with a .500 record?

    Can Paul and James Harden coexist in Houston? Many hope not, according to Zach Lowe of ESPN.com: "They are tapping their fingers together, Mr. Burns-style, in anticipation of the first time Paul undresses Harden for some comatose defensive blunder, grabs the ball, walks it up, and runs the slow-poke set he wants."

    Will Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose be net negatives in Cleveland even while basking in the up-your-game glow of LeBron James? Is Kyrie Irving ready to prove he's more than a scorer after ditching that glow—and a three-time Finals team—to join Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and the remade Boston Celtics?

    Can three ball-dominant scorers elevate the Minnesota Timberwolves, or will the gears grind as Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins try to do their work solo?

    Chris Herring for FiveThirtyEight grabbed a quote from Wiggins that, while framed positively, illustrates the issue.

    "Obviously I think I'm a great scorer and that I'm a great weapon," Wiggins said. "I think of myself as a No. 1 option. We all think we're the No. 1 option. Not in a selfish way. It's more that we just know what we can do."

    Throwing talent together is a fine offseason pursuit. The goal of every team should be amassing as much of it as possible. But once that talent has to play together, sacrifice becomes the first order of business. Not everyone can take 20 shots per game or post a usage rate above 30 percent. Somebody will have to give up scoring chances, contribute defensively or fit into a role that's a little different.

    We'll spend the season monitoring this new collection of superteams, searching for signs of discord or harmony.

    The ones that work will be spectacular. Others will fail spectacularly.

Who's Going to LA?

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    OKC...for now.
    OKC...for now.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    This'll make it two straight seasons of L.A. speculation hanging over players employed by NBA teams not located in California.

    As far back as the end of the 2015-16 season, the Los Angeles Lakers were linked to Paul George. His 2018 free agency and the Lakers' sanction-inducing tampering suggest there's long been fire producing all that smoke.

    L.A. can clear enough cap space to afford two max free agents after the 2017-18 season, according to B/R's Eric Pincus. If we assume George will be the most obvious target (which, in light of all that's happened over the past year, we must), that still leaves another big name. The biggest, actually.

    LeBron James.

    Fox Sports' Chris Broussard said James to the Lakers in 2018 free agency isn't a foregone conclusion, but we know there was something brewing between them and George. As a result, we can't just dismiss the rumors regarding James.

    Nor can we look past the various signs—his reference to L.A. as "home", and everyone from The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski (now with ESPN) reporting on whispers and theories of an LBJ-to-L.A. relocation—portending this landscape-altering move.

    DeMarcus Cousins' free agency looms as well. He's not a bad backup option if James prefers to stay in Cleveland or isn't sure the Lakers are built to win big immediately.

    Even with SoCal native Russell Westbrook off the market, we're going to see marquee free agents asked questions they can't answer all season: What would it be like to wear purple and gold? Do you think James would instantly make the Lakers a contender? Could you mesh with Lonzo Ball? How do you feel about heac coach Luke Walton's volleyball obsession?

    This won't go away until James and everyone else in the Lakers' sights sign their next deals.

Ascents Abounding

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    Things are looking up for these dudes.
    Things are looking up for these dudes.David Sherman/Getty Images

    The search for the next axis-tilting superstar never ends, and you could include several up-and-comers in this year's version of that storyline.

    But Karl-Anthony Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo stand out as the two likeliest climbers.

    Antetokounmpo earned Most Improved honors last season, posting five-category averages never before seen and dunking with just one dribble between half court and the bucket. It's hard to say which feat was more impressive.

    Towns became the first player to ever accumulate 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 100 threes in a season. For him, like Antetokounmpo, 2017-18 will only be his age-23 season.

    If Antetokounmpo adds a three-point shot and continues to develop his already unprecedented all-around game, he could lead the Milwaukee Bucks to 50-plus wins and earn serious MVP consideration. Towns' team is expected to pile up the victories because of offseason changes as much as his own personal advancement, but if he merely becomes an average defender, he'll warrant All-NBA First Team consideration and, yes, insert himself into the MVP conversation as well.

    These two are generational talents flashing previously unthinkable skill combinations, and both should get better this year.

    We'll be talking about them almost as often as this next guy.

The Absurd Scrutiny of Lonzo Ball

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Lottery picks always engender outsized expectations, and anyone associated with the Lakers tends to generate more hype than is necessary. You package those facts together, and it's probably fair to calculate a Lakers lottery pick gets about three times as much attention as he earns.

    But what we're about to see with Lonzo Ball screws up that rough math entirely.

    Thanks to the local angle (he's from nearby Chino Hills and attended UCLA), the blustery trolling from his dad, LaVar, and today's nauseating tendency toward gross media overexposure, Ball is about to be the most scrutinized rookie in history. Before ever playing a regular-season game, he was already the subject of a reality show produced by the good folks who've brought us a decade of televised Kardashians.

    To Ball's credit, he's been quiet and understated at the eye of this whirlwind.

    But when you have observers crediting him for passes made while he's on the bench, you know the disease of Lonzo-centric overanalysis has metastasized.

    Even if everyone's been a little too critical of a reasonable point—passing and unselfishness are infectious—it's still true that we're all paying too much attention to a player who is bound to struggle. Ball has real holes in his game, and he's a rookie, which means he's going to be lucky to make a net-positive impact this season. There will be long stretches in which he's overmatched, even exploited.

    So the real storyline we should focus on when it comes to Ball is this: How does he handle so much attention during those rough patches?

    His ability to stay even-keeled and perform through what will be a challenging first year matters in a big way. If he comes out of this circus in April having improved (and hopefully having delivered on his potential), the Lakers' efforts to attract premium talent get a boost.

    If he's just another overhyped rookie, maybe L.A. isn't as appealing of a destination to established stars.

Tank Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    This is it, tankers. Get in where you fit in.

    The NBA lottery setup is changing, and though the tweaks aren't earth-shattering, they'll disincentivize the race to the bottom—perhaps just enough to curb deliberate losing for a handful of teams.

    Starting with 2019 draft, the teams with the worst three records will all have just a 14 percent chance at the top pick. Under the old rules, finishing with the fewest wins gave you a 25 percent shot at selecting first. Across the board, the league has made losing slightly less likely to result in better lottery position.

    As long as the lottery exists at all and as long as record determines its order, teams will have motivation to lose games. The top of the draft is still the best place for most franchises to find a transformative and, critically, cost-controlled talent. In many situations, it'll still make more sense to win 15 games than 35.

    But for others, maybe the calculus changes. Maybe gunning for that last playoff spot is worth it.

    This year, several teams are rebuilding. The Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls need to add young talent to form new cores. Will any of them double down on the tank, seeing this year as their last shot to exploit the system before the odds of losses leading to the top lottery position get a little worse?

    How will clubs like the Suns, who shut down several otherwise healthy players toward the end of last year, sustain purposeful nosedives with new prohibitions on rest? Might they decide paying a few fines for violating that rule is just the price of doing (tanking) business?

    The new rules aren't here yet, but they're coming. And it's going to get a little weird in the meantime as teams figure out how to maximize their interests before the setup changes.

Is Disaster Imminent for the New Orleans Pelicans?

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    No spacing, an antiquated twin-tower approach, Cousins' free agency in 2018, the ticking clock on Anthony Davis' happiness, head coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps hoping not to get fired and...Rajon Rondo?

    I guess that about covers it.         

Any More Patience for the Process?

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia 76ers are in a terrific position—loaded with young talent, bereft of bad contracts and clearly on the upswing in a threadbare Eastern Conference.

    The playoffs are a legitimate possibility for the first time in years.

    Optimism is spreading, partly because Philly looked competitive (and more importantly, really fun) with Joel Embiid on the floor last year and partly because a fanbase can only be expected to think three years ahead for so long. Getting Ben Simmons on the court, adding top pick Markelle Fultz and quietly bringing on veteran free agents such as JJ Redick and Amir Johnson all contributed to the biggest win-now expectations since the Process began.

    Except...the Process isn't over.

    Rookies generally stink, and the Sixers will start two of them. Embiid has less than three months of healthy play since Philly drafted him in 2014, and ESPN's Lowe reminds us to be cautious with our expectations in year No. 4: "If Joel Embiid were slated to play more, the Sixers could make a run to the No. 2 spot (in his League Pass Rankings). But I would be surprised if he logs 60 games even if he's healthy, which means we should prepare for an almost-best-case-scenario of 50."

    This is a team that, iridescent future aside, needs loads of good breaks to reach .500.

    We have not yet reached the Result, and we won't for another few seasons. When Simmons and Fultz become whatever it is they're going to be, probably in their mid-20s, we'll know if the Sixers' plans worked out. For now, watching this team will be an exercise in expectation management.

    It hurts—I know. But one of the key storylines this year will be appreciating how far the Sixers have come while also understanding how much further they have to go.

Is LBJ Still the Greatest?

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    So many of the other big storylines dovetail into LeBron James' personal narrative.

    His play will impact the significance of all those new-built superteams, because if he's still in his prime, his Cavaliers will still be the biggest threat to the Warriors in games that count. If he's still the league's best player, Towns' and Antetokounmpo's uprisings take on less meaning. If he leads Cleveland to a banner year, figures out how to manipulate all the new pieces on his team and wins a bunch more games without Kyrie Irving, well...it's easy to see how the ripples emanating from LBJ could rock every boat in the league.

    Bigger than all that, though, is James' opportunity to add another chapter to his legacy.

    Can he capitalize on last year's top two MVP finishers (Westbrook, Harden) gaining new teammates who'll eat into stats and divide the spotlight, perhaps grabbing his fifth trophy and his first since 2013?

    Can he render Boston's reconstitution irrelevant by rampaging through the East once more?

    Can he reach his (double-checks, triple-checks because this cannot possibly be real) eighth straight Finals?

    And can he do it all while taking on the even greater responsibility of leading his league in the fight for racial equality, social justice and general decency?

    For the last few years, we've made an annual habit of either forgetting or talking ourselves out of the fact that James is the best player alive. Without fail, he's set us straight in the postseason, usually after someone else collected an MVP trophy.

    Maybe it's unrealistic to expect James to ramp up his production, to channel new motivation, to send the message that he's still the best in this, his 15th NBA season. Then again, if a player has been as unreal as James has for the last decade-and-a-half, maybe it's what we should expect.

    "From being around him for at least three years pretty much every day, I can see the difference. He's just driven," JR Smith told Brian Windhorst of ESPN. "For whatever reason, he's not in those conversations, whether it's MVP or 'he might not be the best player in the world.' It's not so much to prove to [voters], it's to prove himself."

    Nobody has greater import or deserves more attention this year than James, the only guy who can (and did) face down and defeat the world-eating subjects of our final storyline.

Does Anything Matter?

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    The gleeful face of nihilistic doom.
    The gleeful face of nihilistic doom.Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

    Have you tried nihilism? Like, seriously given it an honest shot? A thorough think-through?

    It's a wonderful psychological palate-cleanser. Because if nothing means anything, if we're all just passing the time beneath an indifferent celestial ceiling until returning to a dreamless sleep for eternity, it's hard to get too worked up about anything.

    Relatedly, the Warriors may again be so good that they nullify or, more appropriately, annihilate every other storyline in the NBA.

    If they're what they were last season (or, perish the thought, even better with improved chemistry and more shooting), nothing else matters. Paul and Harden could reach the 100th percentile of their paired potential and get swept in the Western Conference Finals. James and his new Cavs won't stand a chance, and he'll go to L.A. (or not) and have no chance until he retires.

    Antetokounmpo and Towns' ascent will be a footnote.

    No matter how 29 other teams shuffle the deck, regardless of clever salary-cap manipulation or individual player development, the Warriors remain in charge of the NBA operation. For everyone else, it'll be a waiting game—until injury, natural decline or the repeater tax takes this group down a peg, probably sometime in the next decade.

    If, for some reason, the Warriors slip in 2017-18, then all of the preceding angles gain significance. Suddenly, Westbrook's meshing with teammates has real and immediate stakes. We'll have reason to care about Cleveland's crunch-time lineup and Irving's fit in Boston's system.

    But Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are at the height of their powers. Barring the unforeseen, that'll remain true throughout this year and for the foreseeable future.

    More than ever, the Warriors are the great simplifier. In the most consequential sense, they're the only thing that matters because they make everything else meaningless.

                   

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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