The story lines to watch and other superlatives for the upcoming NBA season:
The new OKC
After one transition year following the departure of Kevin Durant, the Thunder are Finals contenders again with the acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. They have enough talent to push the Rockets and Warriors in the Western Conference — if their new Big Three can play together. That is the big question.
Boston vs. Cleveland
Not in recent memory have two NBA rivals made a blockbuster deal, but it happened in August when the Celtics and Cavaliers exchanged point guards, with Boston also giving up its starting small forward and a likely lottery pick. The Celtics now have perennial All-Star Kyrie Irving while the Cavaliers now have Isaiah Thomas. Let the rejuvenated rivalry begin.
LeBron’s last year in town?
The story line in Cleveland will be just as much about the future of LeBron James as whether the Cavaliers can return to the Finals. James is a free agent after this season and has offered no hints about his intentions. Every team with salary cap space and a chance at a title could be a candidate to land him, and then there are the Lakers, who could offer James a chance to play for a storied franchise and be close to his Hollywood off-court ties.
Faces in new places
■ Paul George, Oklahoma City
George wanted out of Indiana, and he will be a free agent next year, so why not spend your walk season chasing a title with the Thunder? He said he is open-minded about staying in OKC, though most likely he eventually will sign with the Lakers. But if the Thunder reach the Finals or even win the title? Maybe not.
■ Kyrie Irving, Boston
Irving stunned the NBA world by requesting a trade weeks after the Cavaliers reached their second Finals in three years. After shopping him throughout the league, the Cavaliers found a taker in the Celtics, who had long coveted the All-Star guard. Now it’s his chance to be the franchise player.
■ Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City
The Knicks had been shopping Anthony for months but couldn’t agree to a deal with the Rockets. The Thunder then emerged with a deal that would prompt Anthony to waive his no-trade clause. Anthony said he is willing to sacrifice shots to win. He hasn’t been a winner in a while.
■ Chris Paul, Houston
Paul wanted out of Los Angeles. Clippers coach Doc Rivers has had difficult relationships with his point guards over the years, and things soured with Paul. Houston provides Paul a chance to get to a place he’s never been — the conference finals — with the help of James Harden. Paul’s career is winding down, and he needed to make a move to enhance his chances at a title.
■ Dwyane Wade, Cleveland
Does Wade have anything left? And will he resurrect his reputation when reunited with his buddy LeBron James? Wade’s return home to Chicago was pretty much a disaster; he didn’t serve as a leader and was bought out of his contract. In Cleveland, he will start at shooting guard and try to give the Cavaliers more than an occasional 20-point game.
■ Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland
Thomas is still very hurt by his trade from the Celtics. He has talked about how painful and disappointed he was to be dangled for Kyrie Irving after all he sacrificed for Boston. He won’t be healthy until January because of the painful hip injury but he could give the Cavaliers the dynamic scorer they need down the stretch, and perhaps get a playoff rematch with the Celtics.
■ Paul Millsap, Denver
The Hawks decided it was time for a rebuild, and the Nuggets wanted legitimacy, so this was a perfect fit. Millsap gives Denver a much-needed veteran leader and scorer in the paint to join Nikola Jokic. He is still an All-Star-caliber player with the ability to change the game on both sides.
■ Jimmy Butler, Minnesota
The Bulls had been shopping Butler for months and they finally found a taker. The skilled small forward will now try to help the Timberwolves to the playoffs. He has always felt overlooked and undervalued, and there would be nothing more rewarding than reaching the playoffs with a franchise hungry for success.
■ Gordon Hayward, Boston
Hayward was one of the premium free agents on the market and chose the Celtics partly because he had played for Brad Stevens at Butler. Unlike in Utah, the pressure will be on Hayward to perform for a team with Finals aspirations. Hayward appears ready for the added responsibility, but it will take him a while to get comfortable.
■ Avery Bradley, Detroit
The Celtics had to trade Bradley to make room to sign Hayward, so he will spent the final year of his contract in Detroit, where he’ll start at shooting guard. Bradley is hoping to produce a big year that will lead to the kind of mega-contract his peers have been signing. Bradley will be motivated to help the Pistons return to the playoffs.
■ LeBron James, Cleveland
With Kyrie Irving gone and Isaiah Thomas out for the first two months, this is his chance to go back to vintage James, chasing triple-doubles on a nightly basis. Does the super-veteran (turning 33 in December) want to show these young guys that he’s still the best player in the game? He is still capable of producing a dominant season, and this may be his curtain call in Cleveland.
■ Kevin Durant, Golden State
Durant would have been the main competitor to Russell Westbrook for MVP last season if not for a knee injury that cost him 20 games. A healthy, refreshed, and comfortable Durant enters his second season in Golden State, and with all eyes watching to see whether they can break their own wins record, Durant has a chance for an all-time great season.
■ Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota
It’s about time KAT fulfills his vast potential. He has been a budding star the past two years but the Timberwolves haven’t won. The additions of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague should relieve some pressure on Towns and give him an opportunity to showcase his immense game. If the Timberwolves can reach the playoffs and push for a top four seed, Towns could get MVP consideration.
■ Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
The reigning MVP was the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961 to average a triple-double. The additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony may reduce his scoring but he still could approach those assist and rebounding numbers. A more motivated Westbrook may want to show why he is one of the league’s best with another stunning season.
■ John Wall, Washington
Overshadowed for many years, Wall is one of the league’s best point guards. Now after leading the Wizards to the Eastern Conference semifinals, he is ready to take the next major step. He agreed to a lucrative contract extension in the offseason, and if he gets the Wizards in the 55-win range, he’ll be an MVP candidate.
■ Lonzo Ball, LA Lakers
The comparisons to Jason Kidd are warranted, because Ball has exceptional court vision. Don’t worry about his publicity-seeking father; Lonzo will keep himself together mentally as he learns the NBA game. But NBA defenses already realize that he primarily shoots after the left-hand dribble, so he’ll need to get more moves.
■ Jayson Tatum, Boston
The kid is slight but he can play. With a sparkling summer league performance, Tatum showed that the Celtics didn’t make a major mistake by trading down to select him. He will be asked to be a contributor off the bench, and will need to improve his strength and defense. The offensive game is already there.
■ Ben Simmons, Philadelphia
He just looks like a star. The 6-foot-10-inch point guard can handle the ball and get to the rim. He plays with poise and maturity beyond his years and is coming off a year lost to a foot injury. His primary issue is shooting, as in he can’t shoot right now. Simmons has to work on his perimeter and free throw shooting to maximize his talents.
■ Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia
The Celtics had their chance to take Fultz but passed and traded for Tatum. Fultz has the dribbling ability and size to score at the rim but he has to work on his jump shot. The 76ers are remaking his jumper, and so far the results are ghastly. Once Fultz gets comfortable with Brett Brown’s offense, he’ll be a gem.
■ Josh Jackson, Phoenix
The Suns desperately need young talent, and Jackson has been compared with Kawhi Leonard as a potential standout two-way player. Jackson has the size and the defensive motor to become a stalwart in the Suns lineup. The only question is whether his offense will eventually catch up.
Potential busts with new teams
■ Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City
He didn’t act out of New York. What’s more, he invoked his no-trade clause until new general manager Scott Perry found a soft landing place. But the question for Anthony is how he will mix with Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Will he accept being a third option on a team with title aspirations? He has always been the No. 1 choice.
■ Derrick Rose, Cleveland
He took a veteran minimum deal to go to Cleveland, but does he have any game left? Rose averaged 18 points last season for the Knicks but was limited to 64 games. Chemistry could be an issue, as Rose is a scoring point guard and he’ll need to pass to make friends in Cleveland.
■ Ricky Rubio, Utah
The Timberwolves traded Rubio to the Jazz for a reason: They didn’t think he was capable of leading their team to the next level. The Jazz will hand the ball to Rubio with limited offensive weapons now that Gordon Hayward is in Boston. Rubio is a master assist man but shot 37.5 percent from the field in his six seasons in Minnesota.
Teams on the rise
■ Philadelphia 76ers
It’s about time they make this list. They have been drafting high in the lottery for five years and finally put together a team good enough to make a playoff run. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz could be future mega-stars, and if Joel Embiid stays healthy, Philadelphia’s days of being a laughingstock are well over.
■ Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers may not make the playoffs in the difficult Western Conference but they’ll be fun to watch as they continue to load their team with prospects. Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, along with Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle, make the Lakers relevant. Magic Johnson has made Lakers basketball an attraction again.
■ Sacramento Kings
Don’t laugh at this one. The Kings are actually moving in a positive direction after trading DeMarcus Cousins. GM Vlade Divac added George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter in free agency and drafted De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles, and Justin Jackson. The Kings are stacking young talent, and there is reason to be excited in northern California.
Teams on the decline
■ Toronto Raptors
The Raptors were swept by the Cavaliers in the playoffs, and their biggest offseason addition was C.J. Miles. They were able to re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but the Raptors are beginning to slow down. After Lowry, Ibaka, and DeMar DeRozan, there isn’t much there. Toronto will slip further behind Boston.
■ Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers could be resuscitated after the Chris Paul trade brought them so many pieces — or this could be the beginning of a swift decline. With the Western Conference being so strong, the Clippers are expected to slip into the lower tier of playoff teams. That wasn’t quite what Doc Rivers expected when he bolted Boston for Los Angeles.
■ Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks were contenders for a decade, but new GM Travis Schlenk has decided to rebuild, letting Paul Millsap go to Denver and trading Dwight Howard. The centerpiece of the organization is the talented but erratic Dennis Schroder, so that should be interesting to watch. The rest of the Hawks are either journeymen or youngsters with much to learn.
Coaches on the hot seat
■ Alvin Gentry, New Orleans
If the combination of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis doesn’t work with a full training camp, the Pelicans may move in a different direction. They have essentially been a mess under Gentry, riddled with injuries, but there are no excuses this time with the re-signed Jrue Holiday plus former Celtics Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen to help. If New Orleans starts poorly, it could be time for a change.
■ Fred Hoiberg, Chicago
The Bulls are in total rebuild mode, and the whole “Let’s hire Fred Hoiberg because he reminds us of Brad Stevens” thing hasn’t really worked. The Bulls are expected to lose, but it’s hard to believe the organization is sold on Hoiberg being the center of the rebuilding project after he failed to lead star players in the past.
■ Jeff Hornacek, New York
The man who hired him (Phil Jackson) is long gone, and the organization is completely rebuilding under new GM Scott Perry. Look for Perry to eventually bring in his own man from his years of experience around the league. Hornacek is just trying to preserve his reputation at this point.
Worst road trips
■ Cavaliers, December/January
The Cavaliers play 10 of 12 on the road from Dec. 17 to Jan. 12. There’s a quick two-game trip to Washington and Milwaukee, then a home game against Chicago. Then there’s a three-game trip that starts with a Christmas Day game at Golden State, followed by games at Sacramento and Utah. The Cavs return home for one game against Portland before a five-game trip that starts in Boston and ends in Indiana.
■ Clippers, February
The Clippers are on the road from Feb. 9-27, a seven-game trip that is interrupted by the All-Star break. Still, they head to Detroit, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston, Golden State, Phoenix, and Denver. And of course, they play a back-to-back set that starts with the trip finale against the Nuggets. Good times.
■ Atlanta, October
The Hawks don’t make their home debut until Oct. 27 because of a bizarre five-game trip to begin the season. They open at Dallas, then go to Charlotte, Brooklyn, Miami, and Chicago, a tough trek for a rebuilding team. The Hawks also have trips of five and six games later in the season.