10 Burning Questions Entering 2017-18 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 18, 2017

10 Burning Questions Entering 2017-18 NBA Season

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    The NBA is back like it never left.

    The bridge between the 2017 Finals and the 2017-18 opener was a steady stream of drama, intrigue and enough activity to almost make you not miss the games themselves.

    But this is why we're all here—to marvel at the 82-game marathon that follows the same outline but somehow never paints the same picture. Even if we're headed for another Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers bout in the championship round, we're about to take a wild ride to get there.

    So strap in, grab your popcorn and beverage of choice and contemplate these 10 searing questions that will shape what's ahead.

Can the Celtics Recover from Gordon Hayward's Injury?

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    There's a chance the Boston Celtics' season ended less than six minutes after it tipped off. Gordon Hayward, the All-Star swingman who arrived in Beantown on a $128 million deal this offseason, suffered a gruesome ankle fracture midway through the first frame of his Shamrocks debut.

    Boston already figured to face a bumpy road having parted with four of its top six playoff rotation members. Hayward's absence creates a new level of turmoil, putting a heavier load on fellow newcomer Kyrie Irving and forcing the young trio of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart to fast-track their maturation.

    Oh, and there's still that cyborg lurking in Cleveland, who's been king of the Eastern Conference hill for seven years running.

    The Celtics won't back down from this daunting challenge. They're too talented and too well-coached to wave the white flag, a message they delivered during their gritty performance in Tuesday's 102-99 road loss to the Cavs.

    But Boston was never favored in this fight. Not with James' shadow looming large over all of his challengers.

    Brown, Tatum and Smart are all nice pieces, but they can't replicate Hayward's combination of scoring, playmaking and three-point shooting. Besides, their climb up the pecking order creates a vacancy behind, depriving the Celtics of a potential advantage in depth. They have enough to earn a top-two seed in the East, but the road out of this conference became exponentially more difficult to traverse Tuesday night.

Who Grabs the West's Second Seed?

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    Is it presumptuous to pencil the Warriors into the West's top seed already? They've been at least six games better than their conference peers each of the last three seasons, and those squads didn't have the depth the current version boasts.

    So, it's a race for silver on this half of the bracket. But hey, at least it's shaping up to be a furious one.

    You could argue for a handful of teams here without looking too foolish, but it most likely comes down to these three—the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.

    Houston might have the best backcourt now with Chris Paul joining James Harden. With mastermind Mike D'Antoni at the controls, this will be a video game attack. San Antonio has Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard, a winning tandem under any circumstance. OKC constructed a superteam out of thin air, brokering sweetheart deals to plant Paul George and Carmelo Anthony around triple-double machine Russell Westbrook.

    Look hard enough, and you'll find these three squads ranked every possible way. But force me to choose, and I'll take the new-look Houston by a (beard) hair.

    "Looking at the rosters alone, it's fair to rank them Rockets, Spurs and Thunder in that order," Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News wrote. "Chris Paul is that good. ... The Rockets had one of the most dominant offenses in the NBA last year. They should be even better with Paul."

Which Coach Finds the Hot Seat First?

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    Here's one for the pessimists—the Association's current coaching harmony won't last.

    It's strange it's lasted this long. The last one to get axed was former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger in May 2016. And even that exit was orchestrated to get him to the Sacramento Kings. No skippers were ousted during or after this past season. For context, four were cut loose during the 2015-16 campaign, and seven were sent packing after its conclusion.

    With so many squads swimming in the middle—not strong enough to contend, not weak enough to tank—the guillotine is itching to drop. There's already a handful of coaching seats too hot to touch, and Bleacher Report's Ken Berger believes New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry is feeling the most fire.

    "With tempestuous duo DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo reunited and newly hired assistant coach Chris Finch waiting in the wings, Gentry could be in trouble if the Pelicans get off to a slow start," Berger wrote.

    Gentry is far from the only signal-caller with (potential) reason to worry.

    Jeff Hornacek, Nate McMillan and Mike Budenholzer have new bosses and different coaching demands, as each finds himself atop a rebuild. Fred Hoiberg hasn't endured a regime change, but the Chicago Bulls overhauled their roster and reworked their timeline (which, admittedly, could be a good thing). Dwane Casey never strays far from this discussion, and the Toronto Raptors could be getting antsy as their nucleus ages.

Is This LeBron's Last Go-Round in Cleveland?

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    And here's one for the optimists—both those who hope James stays in Cleveland and the ones dreaming of his talents elsewhere.

    The King holds a player option for the 2018-19 season. If that's news to you, let me be the first to welcome you to the internet. (Pro tip: Proceed with caution during your online exploration.)

    James hasn't tipped his hand about his future plans and likely won't until an explanatory letter drops next summer and crashes the web. At 32 years old and still three rings behind Michael Jordan, James is on a perpetual championship chase. His next decision will be made with that in mind.

    Could that entail staying in Cleveland and reworking some of the pieces around him? Sure. If he commits to a future there, the Cavs can use that incoming unprotected first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets to facilitate a blockbuster deal.

    But is there a chance he bolts to a bigger market that holds more appeal to potential All-Star running mates? Maybe one outfitted with a banana-boat dock? Absolutely. James has handpicked a championship cast twice already, and he might see that as his best option of getting past Golden State.

    "If you give me Cleveland versus the field, I'm taking the field," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote about James' future. "LeBron is dominant enough to go anywhere he wants. He could tell almost literally any team, 'I'm coming as long as you also sign Players X and Y,' and that team would make it happen." 

Will Giannis Make the Biggest Leap Again?

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    The NBA has never had anyone win Most Improved Player more than once. Of course, if you ask Kevin Durant, the league has also never had anyone like 2016-17 winner Giannis Antetokounmpo before, either.

    "I've never seen anything like him," Durant said on his YouTube channel. "His ceiling is probably...he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to."

    Antetokounmpo's 2016-17 effort was one for the ages. He paced the Milwaukee Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks and became the first player ever to finish among the top 20 leaguewide in each of those categories.

    How could he possibly break out from there, you ask? He turns 23 in December. He has yet to hone a consistent three-point stroke. He hasn't extinguished his growth potential in any facet of the game. Last season he became a star. This year he has a shot at being the star.

    A similar trajectory might be in front of Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and a (hopefully) healthy Joel Embiid.

    If more traditional above-average to good/borderline great leaps are your thing, this season has no shortage of candidates.

    Myles Turner, Rodney Hood, D'Angelo Russell and Aaron Gordon are all moving to center stage. Clint Capela is about to reap the rewards of playing alongside two of the world's greatest point guards. Jusuf Nurkic has the same premier opportunity in Portland that elevated him late last season. And Devin Booker has the scoring prowess to keep pushing forward in volume and efficiency.

Is Lonzo Ball Ready for Life in the Fishbowl?

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    The Lonzo Ball hype train runs from his family home in Chino Hills to his new hoops home at the Staples Center. At this point, it's hard to tell who has spoken in more hyperbolic tones about the 19-year-old—his marketing-focused father, LaVar Ball, or his new larger-than-life boss, Magic Johnson.

    Los Angeles Lakers skipper Luke Walton has typically delivered some of the tamest Lonzo takes. And even Walton is ready to thrust the teenager into a leadership role.

    "If he went to a rec center, people would follow him because he makes people better," Walton said, per Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post. "That's what great leaders do."

    Everything about Ball has been dissected from all angles. Analysis runs the gamut, from his funky shooting form and preternatural passing ability to his footwear and flow.

    Attention will somehow increase even further once the season tips, because Ball means everything to the Lakers now. Even as a rookie, he'll be tasked with elevating the teammates around him and intriguing the big-name targets L.A. will pursue next summer.

    This isn't necessarily new to Lonzo, who's been kept under the spotlight by his father. But the entire experience is heightened. Under the watchful eyes of the basketball world, the Lakers are throwing him in the deep end and knowing full well they'll either sink or swim together.

Who Will Be the Biggest Name on the Trade Block?

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    If anyone had a better 2017 than Kevin Durant and the Dubs, it was the NBA trade market.

    It started with the DeMarcus Cousins stunner during All-Star Weekend, and then went into overdrive this offseason. Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony—a quartet with 26 All-Star selections between them—all found their way onto the league's transaction logs.

    Why not keep this train rolling? Would-be contenders still need more weapons to overtake Golden State. Some rebuilders need to obliterate their infrastructure; others are scouring for centerpieces to build around. Oh, and can someone please get Eric Bledsoe to a team that actually fits his timeline?

    "I love everything about [Phoenix]," Bledsoe said in July, per Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic. "At the same time I want to win."

    Bledsoe is the most logical big name to change addresses this season. He'll be 28 in December, and his prime window could close faster than others given his previous knee problems and reliance on athleticism. But he'd be an expert pickup for anyone with point guard problems (hey, Denver Nuggets!) as one of only six players to average 20 points, six assists and four boards each of the past two years.

    Other obvious trade candidates include Jahlil Okafor (yes, he's still in Philly), Kenneth Faried and Kent Bazemore. Some less-obvious-but-super-fun-to-think-about options might be Cousins—not wishing ill on the Pelicans, but a lot of dominoes could drop if they stumble out of the gate—Jonas Valanciunas, Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews and Justise Winslow.

Can Joel Embiid Push Philly to NBA's Biggest Turnaround?

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    At what point do we deem The Process a success? The Philadelphia 76ers probably need to enter the championship picture to bring everyone to that point, but Embiid's elite flashes are what this was all about.

    He's a 7-foot, 250-pound justification for tanking, a modernized version of Hakeem Olajuwonwhen healthy. Hopefully that asterisk won't always be required, but Embiid has played 31 games in three seasons. Greg Oden had 82 outings under his belt at the same point of his career. Embiid can't change Philly's fortunes off the court, even if his social media game is fire.

    He needs to play. When he does, he's unbelievable. His per-36-minute marks from last season—his first taste of NBA action, remember—are almost impossible: 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 3.0 assists, 1.6 threes and 1.2 steals. He was the unstoppable force and the immovable object, a player who made the 54-loss Sixers 3.2 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents.

    Still, it's hard to anoint him as the Sixers' savior when he's had so many injury issues and is already on a minutes restriction (and isn't happy about it). And even though Philly looks much deeper than it has been recent years, its next two best players are rookies, one of whom isn't starting. The foundation is fantastic, but that guarantees nothing in the way of instant success.

    "There's enthusiasm in Philly about the Sixers. Tickets and jerseys are selling and fans are thinking playoffs," NBA.com's Shaun Powell wrote. "Perhaps it might be wise to slow the roll, though, as plenty of young teams discover that the next step is a slippery one." 

    The Minnesota Timberwolves are the front-runners to make the biggest jump up the standings. The Sixers are in the next tier of leap candidates with the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets. 

Will LeBron Reclaim MVP Honors?

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    For as long as LeBron has made the improbable look normal, maybe this shouldn't be so surprising. Despite cementing his status as the planet's best player year after year, James hasn't taken home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy since 2012-13.

    It's more understandable than it sounds. He battled voter fatigue after winning four in a five-year span. He's prone to cruising through portions of the regular season, a right he's earned with seven straight Finals trips. He's seen some statistical anomalies decide the winner—Westbrook's triple-doubles, Stephen Curry's 402 triples, the Warriors' 73 wins.

    But this is still silly. And it could end this season.

    Kyrie Irving's handling of his exit from Cleveland should give James a compelling narrative, a heaping helping of motivation and an opportunity to bulk up his box scores. And having Irving suit up for the Cavs' biggest Eastern Conference rival might make James more focused and willing to defend during the 82-game trek.

    "This award often boils down to how much James cares to win it," Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated wrote. "When he has a ready-made contender playing the long game for a return to the Finals, vying for the MVP might seem needless. But if he has something to prove, we could see LeBron again meld ridiculous efficiency with the extraordinary excess of superstar production."

    Vegas pegs James as the current favorite, per OddsShark. But Westbrook, Harden, Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant are all bunched behind in what should be a closely contested race. 

Can the Dubs Solidify Their Place as GOAT?

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    Every NBA champion is granted a piece of basketball immortality, but the Dubs want more than a sliver.

    "We aspire to be that dynasty that will be in the minds of NBA fans forever," Klay Thompson said, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell.

    Golden State's credentials are impossible to ignore. It already owns both the greatest regular season (73-9) and the first stretch of three consecutive 65-win campaigns. A 16-1 stampede to last year's title gave it the best postseason winning percentage in NBA history.

    But greatness makes us greedy, especially when the Warriors are essentially trotting a team of Tecmo Bowl Bo Jacksons. They had that 73-win year, but they couldn't cap it with a title. They almost had a perfect playoff run, but they ate a 21-point loss in Game 4 of the 2017 NBA Finals. They've been almost unstoppable for three years, but it's only three years.

    This is where Golden State shifts the conversation. Seventy wins are there for the taking. The Dubs reeled off 67 last year when they were integrating Durant, later adjusting to 20 games without him and not as deep as the current bunch. The title is theirs to lose. No amount of roster shuffling put anyone within striking distance of this squad at full strength.

    If Golden State does what it's supposed to do, all the doors to the historical debates are open. The Warriors will forever be a part of basketball's memory banks.

                         

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.