12 Looming Questions Ahead of NBA Media Days

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2021

12 Looming Questions Ahead of NBA Media Days

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    Every NBA season reveals a series of truths on the way to crowning a champion.

    Some involve plotlines no one could conceive of before the season—say, how a team reacts to a significant injury or a mega midseason trade. Others, though, solve inquiries raised before the campaign ever tips.

    The 2021-22 season has some giant questions that, for now at least, seem like they will shape the entire campaign. Let's dissect the top dozen on our minds ahead of media days.

Who's Getting Extended Before the Season Starts?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Despite mega-money extensions being brokered right and left this summer, there are still a number of players who haven't signed new deals yet but could before opening night.

    The Chicago Bulls would breathe easier if they could get Zach LaVine's signature on a new pact, provided they show him the "respect" he seeks. The Washington Wizards could quiet the trade machine activity by locking up Bradley Beal, though it might be in his best financial interest to keep his options open into next offseason. The Brooklyn Nets ironed out a new deal with Kevin Durant, but they're still looking to sign James Harden and Kyrie Irving long-term.

    The 2018 draft class feels like it will produce more extensions ahead of the Oct. 18 deadline, but which ones? Could max money (or something close to it) be on the horizon for Deandre Ayton or Michael Porter Jr.? Could non-max raises be in the works for Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges, Kevin Huerter or Donte DiVincenzo? Will the Cleveland Cavaliers splurge on Collin Sexton? Can the Memphis Grizzlies and Jaren Jackson Jr. meet in the middle?

    Once we know which players got paid and which ones didn't, we can get a better grasp on next summer's free agency and even this year's trade deadline candidates.

Is the Rookie of the Year Award Already a Two-Man Race?

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    The NBA is all about perpetually looking forward, so forgive our annual obsession with the new freshman class. But some of these players will eventually inherit the hoops world, so it's good to start tracking trajectories right now.

    Speaking of which—will this season's Rookie of the Year race involve anyone other than top picks Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green? Oddsmakers are skeptical, and so are we. The combination they have of ability, opportunity and support feels like the best in class.

    Jalen Suggs might run wild with the Orlando Magic, but his ability to make others around him better will get muted by their lack of talent. Evan Mobley has an imperfect frontcourt situation alongside non-shooters Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Scottie Barnes won't score enough to sway voters. Jonathan Kuminga, Davion Mitchell and James Bouknight won't get enough shots.

    Cunningham and Green, meanwhile, could have complete control of their respective offenses from opening night. And while the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets aren't exactly powerhouses, they're not completely devoid of talent, either. Apologies to anyone who prefers to tightrope a limb in these discussions, but these are the favorites for a reason.

Where Is Ben Simmons Going, and When?

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The particulars for the conclusion of the Ben Simmons saga aren't unclear, but the general result seems to be. After five years with the Philadelphia 76ers—the last of which was punctuated by a miserable playoff performance—the top pick of the 2016 draft is reportedly finished with the franchise.

    "Simmons will not report for the opening of training camp next week and intends to never play another game for the franchise," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported.

    Tell them how you really feel, Ben.

    His ticket out of town was punched in the postseason when he failed to deliver for Philly and both his co-star (Joel Embiid) and his coach (Doc Rivers) threw him under the bus afterward. Trade talks for Simmons simmered even before that, as his name popped up in last season's James Harden sweepstakes.

    The problem is Simmons isn't the easiest player to build around as a non-shooting lead guard, and teams that might be interested in trying to do it may not have the win-now pieces Philly wants in return. It's impossible to say when or how this situation gets resolved, but when it does, it will reverberate across the entire NBA landscape.

How Long Before the Next Star Forces a Trade?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    As any NBA team with a mountain of assets can attest, the market always eventually puts a disgruntled player up for grabs.

    Once Ben Simmons gets moved—or maybe even before that happens—someone else will tire of his situation and seek a scenery change. It happened with Carmelo Anthony. And Kawhi Leonard. And Paul George. And Anthony Davis.

    You get the idea.

    So, who will it be? Hard to say for sure, but there are no shortage of candidates: Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Pascal Siakam or even—brace yourself, Big Easyans (Big Easyites?)—Zion Williamson.

    If any of these players or others from the same tier should happen to vocalize some frustrations, the trade market would go mad. Or should we say, it will go mad whenever history inevitably repeats itself.

What Can Kemba Walker Give the Knicks?

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    When word broke about Kemba Walker joining the New York Knicks, the early reactions were narrative-based. Between "Cardiac Kemba" heading back to Madison Square Garden and the homecoming angle of the Bronx native's return, the stories could almost write themselves.

    But maybe there should've been more talk about the basketball fit and what it might mean for last season's No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

    The Knicks needed more offensive oomph, and a healthy Walker is a special kind of weapon. He has averaged 19 points, four assists and two three-pointers in each of the last six seasons. The only players who have matched that production are: Stephen Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard.

    The catch, of course, is that we had to use the "healthy Walker" qualifier because he's been locked into a year-plus battle with his balky left knee. He can't be New York's offensive savior if he's not on the court. But if the 31-year-old somehow puts this problem behind him, the Knicks might strike the balance needed to not only repeat last season's success, but carry it over into the playoffs.

Can Dallas Solve Its Porzingis Problem?

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks have one of the top five or 10 players on the planet in All-Galaxy star Luka Doncic, who is somehow still only 22 years old. That alone should put this club into the championship discussion.

    But good luck finding anyone dropping the contender tag on this team. The only way that happens is if the Mavericks can get Kristaps Porzingis back to being a building block.

    A career that once seemed destined for superstardom has instead been defined by injuries. It's not just the absences, though there have been many—just 100 games played the last three seasons combined—but rather the lasting effects of his knee troubles. If he remains as exploitable on defense as he was last season, when Dallas allowed an extra 6.9 points per 100 possessions than it did without him, the Mavs almost certainly can't win big with him.

    Still, he's only 26 years old and remains absurdly talented. He disappointed last season and still was good for 20.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 triples (on 37.6 percent shooting) a night. He could be a two-way asset, and if he is, the Mavs might have more than a puncher's chance of shaking things up in the West.

Do Heat Have Enough to Escape the East?

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    Two seasons ago, the Miami Heat shocked the hoops world by using the Eastern Conference's No. 5 seed as their surprise springboard to the NBA Finals. This time around, they won't be sneaking up on anyone.

    While the Heat have perpetually pushed for maximum competitiveness under team president Pat Riley, their ceiling has often seemed to fall short of full-fledged contention. But after adding both Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker to a core that already featured Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Miami is positioned to either join the East's elite ranks or be the biggest thorn in the elites' sides.

    The Heat won't have the East's best Big Three, as no one has caught up the Brooklyn Nets. However, depending on Lowry's ability to keep avoiding the effects of aging and Adebayo's offensive growth, this trio might rank right alongside the Milwaukee Bucks' and Philadelphia 76ers'.

    And if that's the case, the Heat's supporting cast could be what pushes them over the top. Between a bulked-up Tyler Herro, a re-signed Duncan Robinson, an on-the-mend Victor Oladipo and no shortage of tough-minded vets, Miami could have an impressive amount of depth on its star-stacked roster.

Can Suns, Hawks Repeat Last Season's Success?

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks spent all last season rampaging over their expectations.

    Before the year started, both were dropped into the "decent" bucket. By the time it was finished, the Suns had made their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993, and the Hawks were two wins shy of escaping the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Those felt like transformational performances by both teams, but each will find itself carrying a certain level of skepticism into this season. Neither will be automatically granted elite status, so they'll have to earn their spot again.

    The Suns could get there with more backcourt brilliance from Devin Booker and Chris Paul, plus the continued growth of Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. The Hawks can again let Trae Young take over, have more time to figure out how to maximize John Collins and Clint Capela together and keep both Bogdan Bogdanovic and De'Andre Hunter healthy.

Can Klay Thompson Be Klay Thompson Again?

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    The Golden State Warriors could follow several different paths to championship contention, but they all start in the same place: getting Klay Thompson back.

    The last time he hit the hardwood, Kevin Durant was still a Warrior and Kawhi Leonard was with the Toronto Raptors. Thompson tore the ACL in his left knee during the 2019 Finals and lost the entire 2019-20 campaign to the injury. Then, he tore his right Achilles tendon while training for the 2020-21 season and was shelved for its duration, too.

    Now 31 years old, Thompson's challenge is turning back time and reassuming the role that made him such a vital piece of Golden State's title teams. His lethal long-range shot seems a safe bet to return, but what about the defensive versatility that made him such a snug fit in the backcourt with Stephen Curry? If Thompson is no longer a lock-down defender, do the Splash Brothers drop out of the NBA's best backcourt debate for good?

    On the flip side, if Thompson looks like we remembered, what could hold the Warriors back from contending for the crown? Sure, they need some development from their young players—or a trade that turns them into an established star—but the Thompson-Curry-Draymond Green trio has formed a championship nucleus before.

Will Kawhi Leonard Return in Time to Make Clippers Contenders?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    How many players would you take over a healthy Kawhi Leonard? Five? Three? Any?

    He is a two-way wizard, and that's not at all hyperbolic. He's an unstoppable scoring force and an immovable object on defense. Oh yeah, he also tied for the Los Angeles Clippers' lead in assists per game last season (not counting Rajon Rondo's average over his 18 contests).

    Rostering Leonard is like being assured your playoff trip will last at least until the second round and could go all the way to a world title. At least, when he's healthy it's like that. But he's not healthy now, and he's not certain when or if he'll suit up this season due to the partial ACL tear in his right knee suffered during the conference semis.

    "Nobody knows at this stage," Clippers chairman Steve Ballmer said, per Mark Medina of USA Today. "Nobody knows. It's possible [Leonard will play]. For sure, it's possible. But it will depend on what the doctors say and what Kawhi says."

    The Clippers will be as cautious as needed with Leonard, and maybe that keeps him on the sideline all season. If so, L.A. won't so much as touch the championship race. But if he does make it back and has time to find his footing, the Clippers will immediately join the short list of teams that can realistically take the title.

Is Russell Westbrook Ready for a New Role?

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Something feels right about Russell Westbrook joining the Los Angeles Lakers. Why shouldn't the league's most polarizing player suit up for its most polarizing organization?

    Saying that, there's a lot about this partnership that feels a little...uncertain. He's a 32-year-old, nine-time All-Star and former MVP who might need to change his entire approach to co-exist with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. With hardly any spacing between them and limited touches to go around, Westbrook might need to repurpose himself as a screen-setter, cutter and off-ball attacker—or at least be more willing to experiment in those areas.

    He has plagued himself with over-dribbling and shot-chucking in the past. That can't happen in L.A. Westbrook will have his chances to create and should have the green light to go in transition, but this offense runs through James first. It's on Westbrook to find his fit within it, and so far he's at least saying the right things about making that happen.

    "Bron is one of the best players to play this game," Westbrook told reporters at his introductory press conference. "... My job is to make sure that I'm able to make his game easy for him."

    The Lakers are generally regarded as the favorites in the West, but it's a tenuous distinction given the myriad questions with Westbrook's fit.

Can Anyone Challenge the Nets?

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    Want to take the wind out of the upcoming season's sails before media day even gets here? Just remind yourself that Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving all play for the Brooklyn Nets.

    Everything that happens outside of Brooklyn this season may not matter if the Nets stay healthy. As if having these three stars wasn't enough, Brooklyn also still has Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown and Nicolas Claxton, plus it somehow added Patty Mills, Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency. And oh yeah, rookie first-rounder Cam Thomas was co-MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League.

    The Nets have a level of inevitability the league hasn't felt since the superteam Warriors broke apart. Grant Brooklyn a clean bill of health, and the city can probably start thinking about championship parade routes. There simply isn't a defense built to contend with this overwhelming amount of scoring power.

    That doesn't promise the Nets a title, of course. Injuries can happen, as they know all too well. The best team on paper isn't always crowned in reality. The East could be as strong as ever—the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks deserve a mention somewhere, even if we have no looming questions about them—and whoever wins the West will be formidable.

    But from our vantage point now, Brooklyn heads into the new campaign a tier above the rest.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference and Stathead unless otherwise noted.

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