Interest in the NBA is predicated on narratives and storylines from both a current and historical perspective. Since only a handful of teams have a realistic shot at winning the title, each team and fan base must eventually come to terms with their own expectations and goals for the season. For example, Kobe Bryant is still chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan and his six rings even if any rational person knows this is not happening with their roster. Kobe will have to settle for chasing the all time scoring record instead. The landscape of the league can change dramatically in a year as we have seen the best player in the world change teams and already several injuries to stars such as Paul George, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal. With a new season starting in a week, here are five intriguing narratives I will be following as the season progresses:
What are reasonable expectations for the Cavaliers in their first season together?
With the arrival of LeBron James and Kevin Love the Cavaliers will be under a similar microscope as the Heat have been for the past four seasons. The expectations will be championship or bust even if that is a lofty goal for a new roster and a first year head coach. It took the Heat two years to establish their small ball identity and win their first of two titles. One advantage that this Cavs team has is that LeBron is a better fit with Kyrie Irving and Love, whereas Wade and LeBron had some overlap in skill set as wing players. Surrounding LeBron with shooters has been a proven recipe for success and the thought of LeBron-Love pick and rolls will be nightmares for defenses.
It will be fascinating to see how this narrative changes as the season goes on and who will become the scapegoat for any struggles that the team has. If they get off to a slow start then there will be questions about whether or not Love and Irving can contribute to a winning team while sacrificing their own stats. David Blatt will be under extreme pressure to implement a defensive system that masks their lack of rim protection while leveraging their defensive rebounding abilities with Love and Anderson Varejao. Luckily for the Cavs, their only real competition in the East is the Bulls after the Paul George injury took the Pacers out of the picture. In the playoffs it will be interesting to see what their optimal lineups are and how Love and Kyrie perform in their first taste of the playoffs.
How will the Russell Westbrook narrative evolve as he leads the Thunder without Kevin Durant in the lineup?
Russell Westbrook is one of the more polarizing figures in the NBA, praised equally for his competitive fire and athleticism as he is chastised for taking ill advised pull up 20 footers in transition. Without Durant in the lineup Westbrook will shoulder the scoring load for the Thunder while also needing to get his teammates involved. If Westbrook and the Thunder succeed in Durant’s absence then Westbrook will be elevated beyond his second banana status to Durant and the narrative about how they will adjust to Durant’s return may even become a real storyline. If Westbrook puts up great numbers but the team struggles then the critics will use confirmation bias to deem him a selfish player who cannot carry a team by himself. The Thunder have put themselves and Westbrook in a difficult situation as they have failed to surround their two superstars with adequate talent and have been unwilling to go over the salary cap. Teams only have certain championship windows and a scary thought for the Thunder is that the only remnants of the James Harden trade are Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb, both of whom will need to step up in Durant’s absence. Westbrook shot only 37% with Durant off the court last season, a number he will have to improve for the Thunder to win games without Durant.
How many games will the 76ers win?
Many will forget that the 76ers started the season 3-0 last year, with impressive wins over the Heat, Wizards and Bulls. After that winning streak they finished the year 16-63, including a 26 game losing streak. The intentional tanking of the 76ers has arguably led to the discussions of reforming the entire lottery system. There are different philosophies around the league with some owners content to fight for a playoff spot but have no real shot at winning a championship, and others who are willing to go through a long rebuilding process in the hopes of getting the next superstar in the draft. The Thunder/Sonics are an example of a team that was able to draft Durant, Westbrook and Harden en route to a finals appearance against the Heat, while the Timberwolves have struck out on top picks such as Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams leading to a decade long playoff drought and having to trade Kevin Love.
In a few years we will see if Sam Hinkie’s strategy has been ingenious (rebuilding the team with high draft picks Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and another top pick in the 2015 draft), or misguided as these players develop bad habits on a losing team and none of them are able to develop into elite level players. Barring Embiid’s return to the court late in the season, it appears that the most intriguing part of the their season will be his Twitter account.
Will Ricky Rubio prove himself worthy of a max contract?
Ricky Rubio’s flair and unique passing ability make him one of the most enjoyable players in the league to watch from a pure basketball standpoint. His inability to shoot and finish around the rim also makes him a very frustrating player to watch. Regardless of his inability to score the ball efficiently his passing and defensive abilities as an active 6’4 point guard make him a highly valuable player; but just how valuable is the question the T’wolves are trying to answer. Barring a deal getting done soon, Ricky Rubio will enter this season headed for restricted free agency at the end of the year. The Timberwolves have reportedly offered 4 years and $48 million but Rubio and his agent are holding out for the 5 year max. This is understandable from a leverage standpoint given the salary cap increases that the NBA will see due to the huge new TV deal. Everyone will point to Rubio’s poor jump shooting as a reason for concern but his field goal percentage is being impacted even more by his inability to finish at the rim (where he shot just 48% in the restricted area). Rubio’s lack of strength and athleticism prevents him from finishing through and around contact at the rim. He has put on more weight but still needs to add a floater and an in between game to start to fulfill his potential as a scorer. Rubio is an 80% career free throw shooter so if he is able to get to the line more and even slightly improve his jump shooting/finishing abilities, he will be able to coax more than $12 million a year from the Timberwolves.
How many points per game will the Lakers allow?
The dirty secret about the Lakers and Kobe Bryant since their 2010 title is that they have been unable to find a star willing to play alongside Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard was willing to take a pay cut to leave Los Angeles and the Lakers have been unable to use their cap space on a real star to pair with Kobe. This season their haul included the likes of second tier players Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin. The Lakers have already shown an aversion to shooting three pointers in the preseason and it is hard to imagine them being able to stop anyone with their current roster. It is important to not overrate preseason statistics but giving up 119 points to the Utah Jazz is not a positive sign for this Lakers team. Watching Kobe jack up 25 shots a game while shooting another 25 death stares at teammates will make the Lakers an entertaining team even if it doesn’t translate into success. They also have a top 5 protected pick belonging to the Suns meaning they will have an incentive to lose games at the end of the season no matter how much Kobe is averse to it.
Other intriguing storylines I will be watching during the season:
-How close will Derrick Rose be to his MVP self and can the Bulls challenge the Cavs in a top heavy Eastern Conference?
-In a deep Western Conference, will the Suns (and their high scoring offense), Pelicans (with Anthony Davis making the leap) or Nuggets (with the return of Danilo Gallinari) be able to make the playoffs over the returning strong 8 playoff teams from last year?
-Will the super talented Giannis Antetokounmpo make a leap in his second year alongside Rookie of the Year candidate Jabari Parker?
-How will Stan Van Gundy find lineups to play Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe but not simultaneously?
-Will Al Horford and Rajon Rondo put contending teams over the top at the trade deadline?
-Will DeMarcus Cousins make his first All-Star game coming off his Team USA success?
About the Author
Written by Jonathan Fawkes
I was born and raised in Brooklyn but I'm a long suffering Minnesota sports fan (Twins, T'Wolves, Vikings). Looking forward to Teddy Bridgewater, Byron Buxton and Andrew Wiggins bringing a winning culture to Minnesota. Thanks for reading!