It’s hard to remember an NBA season that felt as much like a fait accompli as the one we’re about to embark upon. Last year the Cleveland Cavaliers had a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference while the Golden State Warriors ran up a historic win total in the West. The biggest challenge to either of these teams en route to their Finals matchup was Oklahoma City’s near upset of the Warriors in the Conference Finals. So what did Golden State do? They went out and got Kevin Durant from their biggest rival.
Thus, the Rehash of the Titans in the NBA Finals this year seems about as preordained as these things come. But what about the other 28 teams in the league? These five storylines might not have the headline-grabbing power of LeBron James’ hairline or Kevin Durant’s tank-top, but they’ll be the ones to watch through most of the season.
Scott Brooks as head coach in Washington
Scott Brooks’ tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder was a litmus test for how you think of coaching. When Brooks took over for P.J. Carlesimo, the Thunder had started their first season in Oklahoma City 1-12, and this was after notching just 31 and 20 wins in their last two seasons as the Seattle Supersonics. They already had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but only managed an overall 23-59 record that year. But in Brooks’ first full year, they won 50 games. The next year, they won 55 and made the Conference Finals. In 2011-12, 47 wins – but a trip to the Finals.
At this point, circumstances beyond Brooks’ direct control began to muddy the waters. James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets and – despite 60 and 59 win seasons – the next two seasons’ championship hopes were dashed in large part due to injuries to Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. When Durant only played 27 games in 2014-15, the Thunder limped to a 45-37 finish and missed the playoffs. The writing was on the wall for Brooks.
Did the Thunder under or overachieve under Brooks? On the one hand, he managed to have two ball-dominant scorers co-exist on the floor and got veterans and bench players to work together toward a common goal. The stories about clashes or conflicts between Durant and Westbrook were often exaggerated, but if you think Brooks had no part in making sure things always went smoothly between them, I think you’re wrong.
And yet the other side of the argument also holds water. Brooks had two of the top ten or at worst top twenty players in the league, including one of the top two, and only made one Finals during his stint in OKC. Yes, it’s harder than you think for a team to be consistent in the NBA, but you can point specifically to Brooks’ overreliance on those superstars in crunch time, his propensity for giving minutes to less-than-efficient players like Kendrick Perkins or Derek Fisher, and his generally uncreative playcalling as things which at minimum did not help the Thunder win games.
All of this is why it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with him in Washington. The Wizards’ roster is in a very different place than the Thunder’s was when Brooks took over there. Instead of two to three budding stars, Brooks inherits a core that’s been together for a few years but has failed to come together fully. There are rumblings about a rift between John Wall (who’s entering his prime at 26) and Bradley Beal. Otto Porter had a strong season last year, but it remains to be seen if that’s the new normal or an overachievement. Marcin Gortat is signed through 2019, but he’s 32 and on what is now a very cap-friendly salary that could be appealing as a trade chip.
All of this is why this will make this season a test case for Brooks and his coaching. If his greatest strength with the Thunder was getting the locker room on the same page, he could be a perfect fit for a Wizards team that needs to all start pulling the same way. If the Thunder were always going to be more or less as good as they were because of Westbrook and Durant’s talent, then Brooks may not make much a difference for Washington.
Dwight Howard 4: The Dwightening
There’s the Dwight Howard that Dwight Howard sees, and then there’s the one everyone else sees. In a candid interview last May with Jackie MacMullan, he stressed that he wanted to be part of a team, that he wanted chemistry, and then in the next breath talked about his lack of touches and how not being the focal point of the offense made him “disinterested” in Houston. He said that he had become too comfortable in Orlando and “needed to grow,” but then in Los Angeles he got hurt when he didn’t get his way.
“When they fired Mike Brown,” he said, “they asked me what coach I wanted. I said, ‘Phil [Jackson].’ They said, ‘Well, we don’t know about Phil.’ So they went out and got D’Antoni, and I’m thinking, ‘Well I guess what I say doesn’t matter.’”
To listen to Howard, the peripatetic nature of his career has been caused by 1) getting too comfortable 2) not feeling comfortable enough 3) wanting to find a real team to be a part of and 4) not being treated as the talent he is. To him, this somehow makes sense. To the rest of us, we simply see a string of teams from the Magic to the Lakers to the Rockets where Howard’s eventual and inevitable exit damaged them badly. What he was once elite (and can still be good) at – defense, rebounding, getting to the basket out of the pick and roll – has never squared with what he’s wanted – to be known as a threat in the post and (more recently) to make jump shots.
We maybe all have this a little bit – this gap between what we’re actually good at and what we think we’re supposed to be good at – but Howard’s gap seems particularly large. His whens and ifs (as in, “when and if I ever get in the right situation”) about it playing out in a media spotlight probably doesn’t help either.
And so the redemption of the late afternoon (not quite twilight) of Howard’s career has fallen to the Atlanta Hawks. Two years ago, the Hawks caught lightning in a bottle as one of the ultimate hipster teams in the NBA, an agglomeration of solid-to-good starting players whipped into a ball-sharing, hyper-efficient basketball commune. During their 60-win season in 2014-15, no starter averaged more than 16.7 points a game, yet they all averaged double digits and four of them played in the All-Star Game.
Given that team’s age – Jeff Teague was the youngest starter at 26, with all the rest 28 or older – it was perhaps inevitable that their time in the sun would be short, but who know it would be this short? Although how exactly all these moves relate to each other is muddy, Atlanta traded Jeff Teague for a first round pick that turned out to be Taurean Prince, signed Dwight Howard, at least shopped Paul Milsap, signed Kent Bazemore to a 4-year, $70 million deal and then lost Al Horford to the Boston Celtics, who signed him to a four-year, $113 million contract.
Whatever the Hawks are envisioning for this season – according to Kevin Arnovitz on Zach Lowe’s Lowe Post podcast, it’s pressuring the rim – it’s going to be vastly different from the elegant, all-passing, all-selfless play we saw just a couple seasons ago. At 30, Howard remains the player every team thinks they can reform if they can just get him to see what he really is. This stint with the Hawks may be Howard’s last chance at redeeming his career from the growing sense that he’s a talented player who just never grew up. If he doesn’t embrace this chance, the Hawks could end up a trainwreck.
Russell Westbrook’s debut solo album
Collaboration can be a mixed blessing for the participants. Although basketball as a sport is more easily dominated by star players than football or baseball, there are still five guys on the court at all times. The game’s pace and ever-shifting dynamics mean players need to rely on each other to cover up gaps in their individual games and hold the whole together.
For the last eight years, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were one of the NBA’s most dynamic duos. Despite our collective belief that two players so offensively dominant would have to clash – that the quiet, largely unassuming Durant and the fiery Westbrook must be like water and oil – their collaboration must ultimately be deemed a success. Westbrook’s brash, aggressive style on the court was an excellent counterpoint to Durant’s cooler, more efficient, killing-you-softly style.
But now that Durant has left to join a supergroup, is Westbrook Simon or Garfunkel? Is he Hall or Oates? Captain or Tennille?
Solo albums from the members of beloved groups don’t generally have a great track record, but given Westbrook’s game, it’s not hard to imagine Westbrook in Oklahoma City this year being more All Things Must Pass than Sentimental Journey. Although there’s little doubt that this is Westbrook’s team now, Steven Adams showed himself to be one of the better bigs in the league in the playoffs last year and the acquisition of Victor Oladipo opens up the possibility of a very strong backcourt for a team that’s consistently struggled to fill the shooting guard spot with more than a placeholder.
While the revenge narrative is certainly a juicy one (and one that will be especially prominent leading up to the Thunder’s first game against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, November 3rd), it’s simply going to be interesting to watch Westbrook without Durant after we’ve become so accustomed to them being together for so many years. It seems impossible to imagine Westbrook kicking it up another notch since it seems like he must be running out of space for notches, but who would bet against him?
At the same time, there are facets of Westbrook’s game that Durant absolutely compensated for. Despite his willingness to shoot them, he’s never been a knockdown 3-point shooter (30.2% for his career) and although some of the rest of the roster can hit them, the team will be hard-pressed to match Durant’s productivity as both a 3-point threat and scorer in general.
And while Westbrook can play the agent of chaos on the defensive end, he’s not elite there. Although he’s in the top three of ESPN’s real plus-minus for point guards, he has the worst defensive real plus-minus of the top five – strictly by DRPM, he’s ninth. To be fair, real plus-minus isn’t a ranking system by any means, but the texture and complexion of Westbrook’s game can’t help but change in the wake of Durant’s departure. Seeing how it does should be fascinating.
Will the Chicago Bulls make a 3-pointer this season?
If there was any doubt that the 3-point revolution has taken over the NBA, it should have been silenced by last year’s Finals, where two of the top three teams in 3-pointers attempted per game squared off. Shooting from downtown will not in and of itself, of course, make a team successful, but the simple fact of the league right now is that you neglect it at your peril.
Enter the Chicago Bulls. Last year they were 24th in 3-pointers attempted per game, but they actually shot the third best percentage (37.1 percent) from the arc. The strategy in evidence there is actually a reasonably sound one: You don’t have to take a ton of 3-pointers so long as you’re making the ones you’re taking. Fred Hoiberg, after all, was supposed to bring a new free-flowing offense to a Bulls team that had been known as a defensive grinder under former head coach Tom Thibodeau.
But this offseason, the team pursued a couple different strands and it’s landed them in an odd place. Rajon Rondo might be the most cynical, un-generous player to lead the league in assists per game – in Sacramento, he often seemed to only be interested in passing the ball if it could guarantee him the dime. He’s a career 28.9 percent 3-point shooter, who managed a career-high 36.5 percent in Sacramento last season.
Dwyane Wade is the returning hometown hero, but at 34, his reckless forays to the rim are not what they once were in terms of effectiveness, placing an increased demand on open jump shots. He’s a career 28.4 percent 3-point shooter and last year was an abysmal 15.9 percent from deep.
After parting ways with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler became the de facto face of the franchise, and he’s a strong all-around player. But when it comes to his long-range shooting in particular, it’s impossible to tell what’s going to happen. His career 32.8 percent shooting from deep comes from years of 18.2 percent, 38.1 percent, 28.3 percent, 37.8 percent and 31.2 percent. So is Butler a 3-point threat or not?
Whatever these players’ strengths individually, going into the preseason it was difficult to figure out how they could make for an effective backcourt/wing combination. Rondo’s pass-heavy game and Wade’s rim attacking game can work with sufficient floor-spacing and Butler can slot into the cracks of the right system, but where are the cracks?
And that’s just the beginning of the problems on the technical, Xs-and-Os side of the ball. Beyond the court, each of these players has had his share of problems integrating smoothly with teammates. Rondo’s spiky personality has been an issue for years, Butler has had friction with Rose and other members of the Bulls and Wade has never been happy to completely cede his alpha dog status.
Now, oddly, the Bulls have even doubled down on this oddly unbalanced backcourt by trading Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams, a career 25.5 percent 3-point shooter. This team could crash and burn hard amidst the cramped quarters inside of the 3-point line or their trio of skilled but clashing guards and wings could overcome their differences and become a shining beacon of teamwork in a dark world.
The Joel Embiid Experience
It’s entirely possible that Joel Embiid is Keyser Soze: a myth, a spook story that Sixers fans tell their kids at night. “Yeah, Sam Hinkie did a number on us, but Joel Embiid can change all that.” And no one ever really believes.
Since being drafted in 2014, Embiid has been injured, he’s rehabbed, been re-injured, posted a lot on Instagram, dubbed himself “The Process” in a winking nod to a rebuild that has essentially amounted to Philadelphia’s basketball version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, drank a lot of Shirley Temples, arm-wrestled Justin Bieber, grew two inches, dunked on a lot of trainers and been generally creeped out by the colossal size of Boban Marjanovic, but until this preseason, he hadn’t actually played any NBA basketball.
That’s an awfully long time to live in hope. But given that Philly fans have been subsisting on a thin gruel of D-League players and 10-day contracts for year already, it’s been enough. Any shred of optimism about Embiid, any video of him shooting 3-pointers is cause for celebration in the City of Brotherly Love, a moment to proclaim him not just a solid prospect, but a completely new and revolutionary kind of basketball player. He’s a titan who can play in a league that’s increasingly moved toward small ball, a rare combination of size, strength, defense and shooting the NBA hasn’t seen in a long time – never mind that Karl Anthony Towns just won Rookie of the Year showing off a similar mix of skills in actual games.
To be sure, the flashes that Embiid has shown off in the preseason have been legit. But as a team, the Sixers are still a long ways off. Ben Simmons’ fractured foot will keep him off the court well into the regular season and there’s still a massive roadblock in the frontcourt, which Embiid shares with Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. If Embiid and Simmons are really the future for this team, at least one of if not both those players are going to have to be moved for a solid return. There’s only so much even great players can do with a supporting cast that includes Nik Stauskas, T.J. McConnell and the ghost of Elton Brand.
In short, Embiid’s road to actual NBA games has already been long and rocky, and it’s not going to get a lot easier in the short term. Watching him adjust as well as show off his abilities in actual games will be well worth watching, though. At the very least, he’s going to make sure he’s having fun.