With the 2020-21 NBA season just three weeks away — and with training camps kicking off this week — it’s time to start talking about early season storylines you need to be watching.
What will Kevin Durant — fully recovered from the Achilles tear he suffered in the 2019 Finals — look like when he hits the court for his Brooklyn Nets debut? What type of leadership will Chris Paul bring to the young and hungry Phoenix Suns, fresh off their perfect run in the Orlando bubble? Will the Houston Rockets trade their MVPs and enter a rebuild?
A new season is nearly here. Our NBA Insiders are breaking down what will matter most throughout camp and the opening weeks of 2020-21.
1. Which Eastern Conference situation are you watching the closest?
Tim Bontemps: This one is easy — the new-look Nets. It’s been close to 18 months since we’ve seen Kevin Durant on a basketball court. Here’s hoping he looks every bit the player he was before he tore his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. But between his return, playing alongside Kyrie Irving for the first time, the potential for more moves down the road and first-time head coach Steve Nash on the sideline, there couldn’t be more to watch in Brooklyn. (A close second: What will the Tampa Raptors look like?)
Royce Young: The Nets — on so many levels. Durant’s return from injury, the partnership with Irving, the locker room and leadership dynamics of the team and the billowing trade rumors of trying to add another superstar — James Harden? — make the Nets the most compelling early-season story in the league.
Kevin Pelton: Durant’s health. When it comes to this season, there’s no more important variable in the race to win the East. If the Nets get the Durant we saw most recently during the 2019 NBA Finals, they’re championship contenders. If he has difficulty staying on the court or producing at the same level, Brooklyn hype might be misguided.
Tim MacMahon: It depends on whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs the supermax extension with Milwaukee before the deadline. If he doesn’t, the Bucks will spend the season under the microscope with the threat of his departure next offseason hovering over the franchise. The Nets are guaranteed to be fascinating, as Durant comes back from his Achilles injury and Nash navigates his rookie season as a head coach with a team expected to contend and many players on its roster wondering whether they’ll be traded soon.
André Snellings: Got to be the Bucks, and whether Antetokounmpo signs his supermax extension. They traded draft considerations for the next half-decade to bring Jrue Holiday to town, joining Khris Middleton as a second All-Star in the supporting cast. Was this enough to convince Giannis to stay? If so, the Bucks remain title contenders for the foreseeable future. But if Giannis doesn’t sign, the chatter could overshadow the entire season.
2. Which Western Conference situation are you watching the closest?
MacMahon: How can you take your eyes off the Rockets? The front office plans to be patient in its search for potential trade partners despite the desire of superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook to move on. Winning could ease the discomfort and make that plan much easier to execute. Houston needs prized free-agent addition Christian Wood to prove that his brief stretch as a starter for the Pistons was a sign of things to come.
Snellings: I want to see what the Rockets do with their two MVPs. Harden and Westbrook are rumored to be looking for trades, and moving them would could signal a rebuild in Houston. But the Rockets have said they feel no pressure to make a deal and have instead brought in Wood and DeMarcus Cousins as frontcourt support. The decision will swing whether the Rockets contend or head for the lottery.
Young: The Rockets. Everything is turning upside down in Houston, and with the chatter building about Harden and Westbrook eyeing other places, it could be an awkward first month. The Rockets have to sort out a plan early, because that kind of disruption and dysfunction will make an already difficult situation worse. They’re trying to tell rival teams they’re willing to play it out and be patient, but once practices and games start, that’s a lot harder to do.
Pelton: Harden’s level of desire to force his way out of Houston. The Rockets could be a dangerous team, at least during the regular season, if Harden buys in. If he’s disruptive in pursuit of a trade elsewhere, Harden can submarine the whole thing.
Bontemps: The Warriors. With Klay Thompson injured for the season, this team’s title hopes have all but vanished (barring another massive move later in the season). But if Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are still able to be their best selves, Golden State has a chance to be a factor in the middle of the West playoff picture. But if one or both of them are not able to play at that same level, the Warriors will be left with some tough decisions about their future.
3. Which newcomer will have the biggest impact on his team?
MacMahon: Chris Paul in Phoenix. The Suns became a team worth taking seriously in the West as soon as they traded for Paul. It would be a major disappointment if Phoenix doesn’t end its decade-long playoff drought. Paul’s arrival gives Devin Booker a chance to prove he’s a legitimate superstar and not just a major talent who puts up big numbers on a bad team.
Young: Chris Paul. The Suns can build on the bubble momentum of their 8-0 run in Orlando, but adding Paul to a young, developing group could be the sustaining boost they need. He’s a franchise-changer, from leadership and professionalism to accountability and poise. The Suns have a playoff-level roster, and Paul could set the table for a stellar season in Phoenix.
Pelton: Chris Paul. If CP3 is healthy and his new teammates welcome him as a veteran leader — something All-Star Devin Booker has already signed off on as part of recruiting him for a trade — the Suns can benefit from having one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, much as the Oklahoma City Thunder did last season.
Snellings: Robert Covington in Portland. He’s one of the most unheralded players in the NBA, a consistently strong help defender who can knock down 3-pointers in volume. He is exactly what the Trail Blazers have been missing: a forward capable of stretching the floor on offense to make it easier for Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic to operate while simultaneously acting as a new-age defensive anchor.
Bontemps: LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. There are going to be plenty of struggles, but when was the last time anyone said, “I need to watch the Hornets tonight?” With Ball, Charlotte has a level of relevancy it arguably hasn’t had since Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson were playing for the franchise more than 20 years ago. That alone makes for a massive impact.
4. Which matchup would you most want to see the first week of the NBA season?
Snellings: Bucks vs. Nets. The Bucks have been the class of the East for the past two regular seasons, and they sport a new look with Holiday giving them an All-Star big three. Meanwhile, the Nets begin the season with their own championship aspirations, as we finally get to see Durant and Irving take the floor together.
MacMahon: Warriors vs. Clippers. I want to see how Curry’s Warriors measure up against a contender. I would have picked the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers as the opponent if I were convinced that LeBron James sees the early weeks of the schedule as something more than a warm-up.
Young: Warriors vs. Nets. I’m eager to see Durant back on the floor against his former team, but there are juicy drama and matchup elements, along with Stephen Curry’s return and the debut of No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman.
Bontemps: Nets vs. 76ers. There are huge stars on both sides — Durant, Irving and Nash in Brooklyn and Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Doc Rivers in Philadelphia — plus intrigue about how both teams will look after entering this season with very different on-court mixes. With both fighting for the same territory in a deep race for home-court advantage in the East, this would be a must-see measuring stick.
Pelton: Besides the star-studded battle for L.A., I’d like to see a Bucks vs. Heat rematch. That would both give us the opportunity to gauge how much Milwaukee’s offseason makeover has helped deal with the challenges Miami created and also give the Bucks the chance to exorcise those demons.
5. Bold prediction as we enter the preseason?
MacMahon: Luka Doncic will become the youngest MVP in NBA history this season.
Bontemps: This year’s rookie class is going to be up against it. In addition to the usual rookie struggles, they are returning to action with nine months between competitive games for most of them — and without the NBA summer league to aid their transition. Two of the crown jewels of this year’s class — Ball and Wiseman — haven’t played in more than a year. It should be a long and difficult season for the league’s new crop of players.
Snellings: The Knicks will trade for a former All-Star guard before the preseason ends. They used the draft to address youth in the frontcourt, but there’s still a major lack of talent and production in the backcourt. While the smart play might be to go full youth movement and player development with an eye toward the future, with so many former All-Star guards in play, it proves too tempting for the Knicks to resist bringing one in.
Pelton: After making it clear they signed Danilo Gallinari to come off the bench behind John Collins, the Hawks flip the two players at the last minute and start Gallinari at power forward on opening night.
Young: There will be a big trade before opening night. As teams get players into market and open camps, they’ll assess their situation and get a feel for the dynamics of the team. And it could lead to a team — or teams — determining an early change is needed. And yes, I’m still thinking about the Rockets.