Top story lines
Westbrook coming home — To make another championship run, the Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook, a title being the only thing missing from his resumé. How will all of this work? Is Westbrook enough of a team player to blend with LeBron James and Anthony Davis? Or will he have an abrupt ending like he has in his previous two stops?
Westbrook amasses triple doubles, but is known as a stat chaser. Will he change his ways in Los Angeles as the third option or continue his habit of launching questionable shots?
Ben Simmons controversy — Simmons has demanded a trade, but when the 76ers withheld his salary, he reported to camp. So now he’s practicing with a scowl on his face. This has added tension and drama to a franchise that has had plenty of that in recent years, and has still not reached an NBA Finals since 2001.
Does Simmons fall into the team culture again and return to All-Star form, or does he go through the motions until a trade comes? And has Simmons improved at all since his disastrous playoff performance last year?
Dame’s future in Portland — Damian Lillard appeared increasingly unhappy in Portland because the Trail Blazers aren’t consistently making deep playoff runs. He looks as if he’s ready to give new coach Chauncey Billups a chance, but the Blazers have also talked with the 76ers about Simmons. There could be changes ahead.
Faces in new places
Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Lakers — The Lakers acquired Westbrook after Dennis Schröder struggled last season. It’s Westbrook’s fourth team in four years, and his reputation has taken a hit the past few years because he has produced triple doubles, but not team success.
Kyle Lowry, Miami Heat — Lowry’s tenure in Toronto ended, as both sides were ready to move on as he approached age 35. The Raptors executed a sign-and-trade, and now he’s the lead guard in Miami, which is hungry for another title and was able to acquire Lowry without sacrificing key pieces of the roster.
DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls — DeRozan was ready to get out of San Antonio, and the Bulls had the money and starring role as he approached his mid-30s. DeRozan says he has plenty left after an uneven stint with the Spurs, and he’ll have plenty of help in Chicago with Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine.
Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls — Ball needed a change of scenery after the Pelicans decided Kira Lewis Jr. was their point guard of the future last season. Ball got $85 million over four years, and now it’s time for the former No. 2 overall pick to live up to his potential. So far, he’s only shown flashes.
Carmelo Anthony, Los Angeles Lakers — The Lakers finally added Carmelo after years of the sides talking about a relationship. Anthony, in his 19th season, is ready for a bench role on a championship-caliber team. The Lakers have enough depth where Anthony won’t need to flourish every night, but he does need to uplift the second unit.
Dennis Schröder, Boston Celtics — After either turning down $84 million or having the contract offer taken away, Schröder is in Boston on a one-year deal, with the hopes of proving he’s a frontline point guard who could garner $20 million per season.
Kemba Walker, New York Knicks — Walker spent two injury plagued seasons in Boston and gets a new start. He wants to prove he can return to his Charlotte form, where he was a top-10 point guard and prolific scorer.
Evan Fournier, New York Knicks — Fournier’s time in Boston was pretty much a wash because of COVID-19. He wanted to come back to the Celtics, but the Knicks offered more money. The pressure will be on to constantly produce, a responsibility he never had during his years in Orlando.
Kyle Kuzma, Washington Wizards — The former first-round pick was sent to Washington in the Westbrook trade, and this may be a chance for him to escape LeBron James’ shadow and flourish with his own team. He’s still only 26, and has shown the ability to score and defend.
Potential busts with new teams
Lonzo Ball, Bulls — Can Ball’s offense finally catch up with his passing? Can he consistently make a jump shot? Can he stay healthy enough to lead a team into the playoffs? Or is he another overrated lottery pick who may just be a solid player and nothing more?
Kemba Walker, Knicks — Yes, Walker is home, but he’s also coming off two years of knee issues and may be on a decline at age 31. Knicks fans and coach Tom Thibodeau don’t want to hear about injuries. They want the vintage Kemba.
Lauri Markkanen, Cleveland Cavaliers — Markkanen could never get untracked in Chicago after being a high lottery pick, and will have to prove he’s not just another overrated bust. The Cavaliers are stacked in the frontcourt, so Markkanen’s role may not be completely defined.
Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers — It’s Howard’s third stint with the Lakers. He’s turned himself into a productive backup center, but he’s approaching 36 and the skills are in decline.
Teams on the rise
Chicago — The Bulls went out and invested money, bringing in DeRozan, Ball, and Alex Caruso to join Coby White, LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic. The goal is not only the playoffs, but a top-four seed. The Bulls are no longer a laughingstock. They will be a tough out on a nightly basis, and could be the surprise team in the conference.
Charlotte — The Hornets have been waiting for years to become anything more than just another below-average NBA team. This is the year they need to make a statement in the East. A healthy Gordon Hayward along with LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier gives the chance to claim one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. They also added Kelly Oubre and Mason Plumlee for depth.
Atlanta — The Hawks finally harnessed all of their young talent and turned into a contender, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in a stunning run. With Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and John Collins a year older and more seasoned, the Hawks have an outside chance of claiming one of the top two seeds in the East under coach Nate McMillan.
Teams on the decline
Indiana — It’s not that the Pacers are going to struggle nightly, but they have a bunch of solid, not spectacular players. New coach Rick Carlisle has been known to clash with players in the past, so this could be a definite transition season as the Pacers figure out how to compete with the elite teams in the East. It’s going to take big seasons from Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, and Malcolm Brogdon to take that next step. If not, the Pacers may slip into the lottery.
New Orleans — Former No. 1 pick Zion Williamson is out indefinitely after foot surgery, and the Pelicans made no real significant moves to improve and become a playoff contender. Brandon Ingram hasn’t proven he can be a No. 1 option, and Devonte’ Graham hasn’t proven to be a consistent scoring option. The Pelicans could be headed for another disappointing season and perhaps another rebuild.
Philadelphia — With all the Simmons issues, the 76ers are an unknown entity in the Eastern Conference. They are prime for major slippage because of all this drama. The team still has the best center in the game in Joel Embiid, but with Simmons’ status and his desire to contribute in question, it could be a disappointing season.
Coaches on the hot seat
Luke Walton, Sacramento — The Kings need to make the playoffs. Sacramento was in the chase last year until a 9-game losing streak derailed their chances. With the addition of Davion Mitchell to an already young and talented team, it’s about time the Kings make the next step. Another supbar start and Walton could be the first coach fired.
Mike Malone, Denver — The Nuggets can blame injuries for last season’s downfall in the playoffs, but it’s reaching a point where the excuses get old. Denver has the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, swingman Michael Porter Jr., and the hope is Jamal Murray will return from a torn ACL sometime this season. The Nuggets could make a deep playoff run, but if they fall short, the organization may seek a fresh start.
J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland — The Cavaliers have spent the past few years amassing young talent, and it’s about time the club makes the next step out of the Eastern Conference cellar. A slow start or another 25-win season could mean Bickerstaff’s job because Cleveland has too many good young players who need the right teacher.
⋅ Kevin Durant, Brooklyn
⋅ Jayson Tatum, Boston
⋅ LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
⋅ James Harden, Brooklyn
⋅ Joel Embiid, Philadelphia
⋅ Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
⋅ Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
⋅ Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
⋅ Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
⋅ Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
⋅ Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
⋅ Cameron Thomas, Brooklyn Nets