January 1, 2018 at 6:00 AM
This first appeared in the Jan. 1 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, The Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
As the calendar flips to 2018, the NBA finds itself in as strong a position as it has been in years. With a league full of young stars, a pair of dominant teams everyone is chasing and ratings that are increasing in an era of cord-cutting and declining viewership, it’s a good time to be part of The Association.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions ahead. In fact, there are plenty of them waiting to be answered as 2018 begins. So here is a primer for the year ahead, with the 100 questions that will define the NBA across the next 12 months:
Challenging Golden State: Any look at what lies ahead for 2018 has to begin with the most obvious question facing the NBA today: Will anything stop Golden State from winning a second straight title and a third in four years? Barring a significant injury or some other unexpected development, it sure feels like the answer to that is a resounding no. The better query may be: Is there even an opponent that can give them a significant challenge? Last year, Golden State won 15 in a row and went 16-1 in the postseason en route to winning the title. Perhaps they will get a bigger test this year, but more than two months into the 2017-18 season it still feels like they are lapping the field.
Cleveland, meanwhile, limps into 2018 having lost three straight games to end 2017, including losses in Sacramento and Utah. But does that change the fact LeBron James and the Cavaliers are the favorites to face the Warriors in the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season? Not here it doesn’t. Until someone in the East beats LeBron James, the smart money is to assume no one will.
That said, can the new-look offense of the Toronto Raptors give them more staying power in the postseason this time around? And, if it doesn’t, does that mean that the non-stop discussion of Coach Dwane Casey’s job status will return with a vengeance? What about the Boston Celtics, who won Sunday to go into 2018 with an East-leading 30-10 record: Can their youth movement speed up enough to allow the Celtics to truly challenge Cleveland this spring? And will Gordon Hayward manage to make a comeback from his gruesome ankle injury quick enough to be a factor? (The guess here is no, but it sure would be a fun story if he did).
Out West, can Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio or Minnesota put a scare into the Warriors? A recent five-game losing streak for the Rockets has put a serious dent into their hopes of wresting the No. 1 seed away from Golden State and has brought them within striking distance of the other three for the second spot out West. How those two to five spots play out will be fascinating to watch.
That won’t be the end of the interesting things to watch in both conferences, though. Will Joel Embiid be able to play 60 games? If he can, that should answer another question: Can “The Process” finally turn into “The Playoffs” for Philadelphia? Will the Knicks, after moving on from Carmelo Anthony, be able to make the playoffs in a year they were supposed to stink?
Speaking of Carmelo, can he get himself back on track after a rough start in Oklahoma City? With the aforementioned five teams looking like locks to make the playoffs out West, how will the remaining three spots sort out between Denver, Portland, New Orleans, Utah and the Clippers? There is plenty on the line for several of those teams, which we will dive into momentarily.
Meanwhile, how will Jabari Parker look when he finally returns from a second torn anterior cruciate ligament in February? How will Isaiah Thomas look whenever he gets back on the court sometime in the next few days, or weeks, in Cleveland? Can Zach LaVine’s return help continue Chicago’s stunning push for a playoff spot? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo be enough to lead the Bucks on a deep playoff run? Can the Wizards ever get off the roller coaster Scott Brooks keeps referring to and start playing with some consistency?
The Coaching Carousel: We’ve already seen two coaches — David Fizdale in Memphis and Earl Watson in Phoenix — canned this season. The early dismissals came after the first season in decades passed with no coaches being fired. They almost certainly won’t be the last.
Who else will go? The questions begin in both of those cities. Will the Suns retain Jay Triano? What about J.B. Bickerstaff in Memphis? The guess here on both is no.
What about Jason Kidd in Milwaukee? Kidd has been under fire at various times during his three-plus seasons with the Bucks. Will a disappointing second half be enough to do him in this time? What about Brett Brown in Philadelphia? This space certainly wouldn’t endorse making a change, given how much respect Brown has around the league. But the Sixers have plenty of expectations after a hot start and recently have fallen off a cliff.
It seems like Doc Rivers will be sticking around for the remainder of the season after endless rumors of his demise over the past couple of months. But what will happen when the offseason arrives? The same holds true in both Atlanta and Orlando, where Mike Budenholzer and Frank Vogel are helming teams that are heading nowhere with new front offices in place. Will the new regimes look to bring in their own men or will they stick with what is already there?
Then there are the coach-front office tandems that came into this season with plenty riding on the line: Steve Clifford and Rich Cho in Charlotte and Alvin Gentry and Dell Demps in New Orleans. With Charlotte also heading nowhere, will Michael Jordan clean house and start over? And, if New Orleans manages to sneak into the playoffs, will both Demps and Gentry once again survive to fight another day? In Chicago, Fred Hoiberg has led the Bulls to a stunning turnaround. Will he need that to continue to keep his job?
With all of these potential firings, there will need to be coaches hired to replace them. Where will Monty Williams end up? He seems to be the most likely coach to get a job among the available candidates. Could Igor Kokoskov, a well-regarded assistant in Utah who led Slovenia to the European title this past offseason, become the first European coach of an NBA team? If not him, does Ettore Messina leave Gregg Popovich’s staff to do so?
With Jon Gruden potentially leaving the ESPN broadcast booth, is this the year that one or both of ESPN’s top basketball crew, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, get back in the game? One intriguing landing spot for Van Gundy, if he does wind up being interested, is Milwaukee, which already has a ready-made superstar in Antetokounmpo for him to coach.
The Trade Deadline: The first question is also the most important: Will the new deadline impact the amount of activity that goes on around it? In the past, it always was the Thursday after the All-Star Game. This year, though, it’s been moved up to Feb. 8, two weeks earlier, as a result of DeMarcus Cousins being traded during the game last year overshadowing the game itself.
Will the new deadline potentially cause more teams to decide to stick with what they have instead of throwing in the towel? That will be something to monitor. So, too, will the amount of dead money around the league. Will that prevent teams from being able to make significant moves? Teams like the Wizards (Ian Mahinmi), Bucks (Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson), Knicks (Joakim Noah), Raptors (Jonas Valanciunas), Trail Blazers (Evan Turner) and the Pelicans (Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca) all would like to make moves but have more than $15 million in ugly contracts on their books that could prevent them from doing so.
There’s also the question of supply. Not only is there a question as to whether a star will move — but will there even be a star-quality player that’s put on the block? With the Clippers somehow staying in the race even after losing Blake Griffin for most of the season thus far, will that keep DeAndre Jordan in Los Angeles? Is there any way that Cousins gets put on the block? (Barring a significant collapse by New Orleans, no.)
The most likely star that could become available is Charlotte’s Kemba Walker. But will the Hornets be willing to blow it up, and what exactly will he — 18 months away from a massive payday — bring back in a deal?
While there may not be many stars available, there will undoubtedly be a lot of teams trying to shed salary, as the league is facing a money crunch this coming summer. Can any teams approaching the tax find places to move unwanted salary? And what will be the price for doing so in an environment with an ever-shrinking amount of free cap space around the league? Can the bad teams find homes for useful veterans? And can contenders in need of bench help — here’s looking at you, Houston and Oklahoma City — find ways to deepen their playoff rotations despite being asset-poor?
The NBA Draft: Will Luka Doncic go first overall, becoming the first European to do so since Andrea Bargnani in 2006? As Trae Young continues to destroy college basketball, how will people view the Oklahoma star? Will he or Alabama’s Collin Sexton be the top point guard taken? They could decide that for themselves in a showdown in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 27.
Where will the bad boy of the NCAA, Grayson Allen, wind up after sticking around for his senior season? How will Michael Porter’s back injury impact his draft stock? He was a certain top-five pick pre-injury. How will the glut of big men in the top seven — DeAndre Ayton, Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley, Robert Williams and Jalen Jackson — sort itself out?
Will the players skipping college, Anfernee Simons and Mitchell Robinson, benefit from their decision? Will LiAngelo Ball get drafted at all? (We already know the answer to that one: No).
After their trade last spring, will either the Celtics or Sixers get the Lakers’ pick? Will Cleveland wind up keeping Brooklyn’s pick? And if so, where will it wind up? Will this be the year Sacramento finally wins the lottery (and undoubtedly takes Doncic)? And where will cratering teams like Memphis, Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix wind up?
Free Agency: This begins in the obvious place: What will LeBron James do? It seems like he will truly be in play for the first time since returning to Cleveland in 2014. What will factor into his decision? And will he sign a multiyear deal no matter where he goes, or will we all be sitting here a year from now again wondering what James will do in 2019?
James isn’t the only member of the Banana Boat quartet to be a free agent this summer. All of them will be. After being traded to Houston in June, will Chris Paul sign a long-term deal to stay there? After being traded to Oklahoma City in October, will Carmelo Anthony opt-in to the final year of his deal? And what will Dwyane Wade do after serving in a bench role with Cleveland this season?
The best free agent this summer besides James is Paul George. Will he leave Oklahoma City for the Los Angeles Lakers, the team he’s been linked to for more than year now? Or will the Thunder do well enough to convince him to stay? Ditto for DeMarcus Cousins: Will he be remain alongside Anthony Davis in New Orleans, or will he go elsewhere as a free agent?
The Lakers will be hoping to sign at least two of James, George and Cousins. Can they get it done? And, in a much more interesting question, how will they react if they can’t get any of them? Meanwhile, if Cousins does decide to leave, does that push the pursuit of Anthony Davis via trade from a theoretical discussion into an actual one?
There are a host of fascinating restricted free agents, too. What will the markets be for Parker and LaVine coming off torn ACLs? What about Marcus Smart and Julius Randle both coming off the bench? What about the two best young centers available, Clint Capela and Jusuf Nurkic? Will Orlando prioritize keeping Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton? Will Jahlil Okafor be prioritized anywhere? And what in the world will Dante Exum’s market be after he’s played a combined 148 games in four years?
Will Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki choose to play another season? Will Noah be back in New York or get a buyout? Will Marc Gasol get traded after a disappointing season in Memphis? Will DeAndre Jordan get a max contract? Will Isaiah Thomas earn himself a payday after coming back from his hip injury?
Both Houston and Philadelphia will hope to make major additions in free agency. Can either? Will Kevin Durant choose to sign a long-term deal or another one-year pact? Will Golden State make a significant cost-saving move or bring back its core for another run? Will Detroit manage to keep Avery Bradley? Will Portland consider making a change if the Blazers disappoint? Will Embiid manage to make an all-NBA team, and thus increase his max — and decrease Philadelphia’s cap space?
Awards season: Will James Harden finally win the league’s MVP award, or will he finish as a runner-up for a third time in four years? Will LeBron James finally get his fifth award, tying him with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell for second-most? Or will he remain the best player but not the most valuable one by the voters’ standards? Is there any way Durant can force himself into the mix? What about Antetokounmpo?
Speaking of Durant, can he go from never having made an all-defensive team to winning defensive player of the year? At least so far, the answer is yes. If he doesn’t win it, will Paul George take home the honor? Will anyone else even be considered?
Is Ben Simmons already the consensus choice to win rookie of the year? Or can either Donovan Mitchell or Kyle Kuzma make it a real race? Can the engraving begin for both Victor Oladipo (most improved) and Brad Stevens (coach of the year)? It sure feels like yes to both of those.
Greater league business: The most anticipated NBA champion visit to Washington comes in late February, when Golden State will be in the nation’s capital. How will the Warriors spend their time in D. C.? How will President Trump respond to it?
Will the NBA finally get to 30 G-League affiliates? And how will that begin to change the way the minor league is handled? Speaking of the G-League, will the Mexico City affiliate get off the ground by the start of the 2018-19 season? And will it go well enough for the league to consider making the megacity of more than 20 million people the home of an NBA franchise?
In wake of recent replay complaints, will the process be changed or expanded? Will there be any other rule changes after the league curtailed three-shot fouls and eliminated a timeout this past summer?
Will the NCAA and NBA get together and permanently alter the one-and-done rule? Momentum certainly headed in that direction, but it’s always safe to bet on the status quo. What won’t be status quo is the Memphis ownership situation, which is now headed down a path where it will have to change. So who will emerge as the controlling owner: Steve Kaplan or Robert Pera?
And, finally, how will the league react to an impending tax crisis, with most of the league’s teams facing a tax bill next summer — including many teams that won’t be thrilled about paying it? That may be the most important question of all.
The only thing that’s known for certain is that 2018 is going to have a lot to live up to in order to match the craziness that 2017 brought to the NBA. But if recent history is any indication, the league will undoubtedly give it its best shot.
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