THE NBA IS BACK! Yes, already! Feels like we barely left. The bubble didn’t wrap up long ago, followed quickly by a frenetic offseason, and here we are, already launching a new season. The last NBA game came two months ago today, when LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship. Somehow, that simultaneously feels like both a week ago and also three years ago, a tribute to this extremely weird 2020.
There’s typically little precious excitement for preseason action, but perhaps this year will be different. Pandemic life means a bit more gusto for any semblance of live sports, and some of these players and teams haven’t played for the better part of a year now. And besides, it’s basketball! Real, vaguely competitive basketball, on our TV screens!!
There’s little to see from teams like the Lakers or Heat, but what about players like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry who we haven’t watched for a year, or how about these new rookies or the Delete Eight teams who haven’t played since March? Preseason can only tell us so much, but it’s a first glimpse at players and teams we haven’t seen for forever.
So if you’re looking for an excuse to watch a little preseason action these next couple weeks before the season tips off on December 22, here are 10 things to keep an eye on…
1. Kevin Durant! Playing basketball! With Kyrie Irving!!
It’s been 17 months since Kevin Durant officially left the Golden State Warriors for the East Coast, and 18 months since we’ve seen him on a basketball court in that attempted Finals comeback. You remember how that one ended — with a torn Achilles and the end of Durant’s time in the Bay.
Nothing is more important in the NBA big picture than discovering exactly what version of Durant we’ll get back upon his return. The NBA has a long history of careers ruined by torn Achilles, always an incredibly difficult injury to return from.
Will Durant have a minutes limit or play in only short bursts? Will he be at 100%? 95%? 85%? Will Durant’s shot look any different? Will his stride and burst be there? How confident will KD look and feel? What position will he play in Brooklyn? There’s been talk of minutes at the four and small-ball five. Is there a Point Center in there? How will Durant look next to his new teammates, none of whom he’s ever played real ball with before?
And what about Kyrie Irving? We did see Kyrie for 20 games last year, and he was actually awesome, pretty easily a top-5 guard in the NBA while healthy. Yet somehow, everyone seems to have written him off entirely. Will Kyrie look healthy? How will he look next to Durant? Will we see some of that Kyrie-LeBron chemistry? How will the two share the ball? How will they play off each other? Will we get to see the Kyrie-KD pick and roll?
Nothing in the NBA matters more than what this duo looks like. If Durant and Kyrie are DURANT and KYRIE, this is the second best duo in the NBA — at least. Durant was as good as any human on the planet at basketball the last time we saw him, and Kyrie was high on the list. Make no mistake about it. If KD and Kyrie are truly back, the Nets are the clear East favorites.
This is our first chance to see the two together, and an early glimpse at how guys like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Taurean Prince will step back into complementary roles. And it’s our first chance to see Steve Nash, new NBA head coach!
There’s just a lot going on here. Watch the Nets. We won’t go into anywhere near this length on anyone else, but the Nets are important.
2. How does Zion look?
Like fifth-year rookie Ben Simmons, this is Zion Williamson’s real rookie season. Zion was never fully healthy or fit last season. He wasn’t healthy coming into the year and never really got there, nor in the bubble.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Zion is healthy now, either. He supposedly won’t have any minutes limit this season, but we’ll see about that. It didn’t feel like Zion was in game shape earlier this year, or in the bubble. That’s not a critique, just an observation. Williamson is awesome and potentially an immediate top 25 player. We need to know if he’s healthy and ready for a full load to have an idea of how good the Pelicans can be.
Also, what will Zion look like next to new teammates Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams? That’s a lot of non-shooters in one starting lineup. The Zion Project is starting to have some serious doubters, even this early in his career. He needs to start answering some of these questions.
3. Is John Wall alive?
We haven’t seen John wall on a basketball court since 2018, and it feels like even longer. It will be almost two full years since his last game action when we next see Wall, and he’ll be wearing a new uniform too.
Wall is another of those torn Achilles guys, and that seems particularly worrisome for a player so reliant on explosive athleticism. Wall was 28 when we last saw him and already slowing down, though he wasn’t healthy that year either. Three years ago he put up 19 and 10 and hit a career best 37% behind the arc, but even then, he played only 41 games.
Is Wall still an All Star? Is he still a starter? Is he even still a useful NBA player? I have basically counted his contract as complete dead weight the last couple years. It’s up to him to prove otherwise.
4. Do Steph and Draymond still got it?
It’s wild that we consumed All Warriors All the Time for five straight seasons and then pretty much stopped entirely without warning during one crazy Finals week 18 months ago. We’ve literally seen five games from Steph, Durant, and Klay Thompson combined since everything went sideways 18 months ago. That’s NUTS.
Does Steph still have it? We don’t really know what Curry looks like anymore, because we haven’t had to see him play as The Guy on a team since 2016, really. Last year was supposed to show us that. This year he’ll be a one-man offense with precious little help. And we won’t get those answers in preseason, but will we get little flashes? A few long threes and shoulder shimmies?
We almost certainly won’t be able to tell much from Draymond Green, maybe not even until the playoffs. But let’s see what sort of shape he shows up in and how motivated and focused he looks. Again, probably not much to see here in preseason. Maybe we should focus on how much muscle Andrew Wiggins has added instead. Can’t hurt to take a peek though.
5. What about the new look Sixers?
Al Horford and Josh Richardson are gone after a failed one-year tryout, and the new 76ers kind of actually make sense. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are surrounded by shooters! Hello Seth Curry and Danny Green.
Are Ben and Joel healthy? What’s the new offense look like? How effective will Simmons be with all that added spacing? How will things go with Doc Rivers?
Again, probably a few glimpses, at best, but it’s somewhere to start from.
6. What about the new look Atlanta Hawks?
Trae Young has quickly become a very polarizing player. Young put up huge numbers for a point guard at his age, and he did it without almost any help.
That changes now. Young was far better last year with John Collins on the court, his one definite NBA teammate. He never got a chance to play with Clint Capela yet, an actual defender and real starting center — imagine that! Now Atlanta added Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari too.
That essentially upgrades 3.5 of Young’s four top rotation teammates, and it means the excuses are gone now. Will there be early chemistry with Trae and Bogdan? Will that extra handling mean more time off the ball for Young, and how does he look cutting and taking open shots?
Just how good can the new Hawks offense be? It’s going to have to be pretty good to make up for this defense.
7. What about the Timberwolves?
The Wolves are one of those eight teams we haven’t seen for nine months, and though I’m biased as a Minnesota fan, I think they’re one of the more interesting ones.
The Timberwolves made a slew of moves last February but never got a chance to see them pay off. D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns literally got one game together. DLo has played 12 games in a Wolves uniform. Malik Beasley parlayed his 14 Wolves games into a huge extension. He’s played two games with KAT. Anthony Edwards hasn’t suited up yet and has never played on a team with real talent, or in a complementary role. Ricky Rubio is back but will either come off the bench or start next to another lead handler.
The Wolves will be a slow burn, and they’re not particularly likely to be in the hunt for even the play-in game in the West. But there’s a ton of talent on the court now, and this is our first real chance to see it all together.
8. LaMelo Ball in an actual game! Right here in these United States of America!!
We’ve been watching LaMelo for like six years now, first at Chino and then in grainy Lithuania footage and in the middle of the night in Australia. Finally, we get to see Ball play back here in the States, and with real actual basketball players on the court next to him.
The wait for all these rookies has been eternal. There was no March Madness, and some of the top guys didn’t play college ball anyway. Most people haven’t seen Killian Hayes or Deni Avdija. James Wiseman got only three college games. Heck, even the young guys already in the NBA are exciting to check in after nine months away, guys like Sekou Doumbouya, Coby White, and R.J. Barrett that didn’t get to play in the bubble.
Nine months is an eternity for a young player, but LaMelo has been half a decade in waiting. We finally get to see him.
9. Was that Jamal Murray superstar leap in the bubble real?
With all due respect to Donovan Mitchell and other bubble breakouts, Jamal Murray was the most important. At times, Murray played like Damian Lillard out there, bombing threes at a fiery rate. Denver was nearly unbeatable when Murray was hot. In other games, he reverted back to regular old Murray and the Nuggets fell off too.
Do the Nuggets have one superstar or two? How much of that Murray leap was an inspired bubble performance, and how much was a real step forward?
And for that matter, is it possible Denver has three stars? What will sophomore Michael Porter Jr. look like? Will the Nuggets build on that WCF run, or was that a once in a pandemic opportunity?
10. Basketball. Real basketball!! Kinda.
Honestly, 2000 words is probably a long enough preview for preseason basketball. So let’s just get excited to watch some real, vaguely meaningful ball again. It’s never too soon.
Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal! Chris Paul on the Suns! Chicago with an actual competent coach! There’s plenty more to watch for.
So grab a Yule log and a cup of cocoa and settle in…
The NBA is finally, already back. ■