The court is back in ses­sion

LeBron’s big move to L.A., Celtics’ bid for East supremacy on the ’18-19 docket

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

The King headed West, where the War­riors reign supreme, leav­ing a big hole to fill in the East.

Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan traded places on the Rap­tors and Spurs, two teams look­ing to quickly reload in­stead of re­build.

And the 2018-19 sea­son will be a pre­lude to a po­ten­tial block­buster sum­mer of free agency.

Here are the big ques­tions head­ing into the sea­son:

For the first time as a pro­fes­sional, James will be a vet­eran on a team for whom the re­al­is­tic best-case sce­nario isn’t an NBA cham­pi­onship. He’ll be asked to men­tor younger play­ers, to help raise the tide of the team and see who comes with him.

James hasn’t al­ways been the eas­i­est per­son to play with — the great­est play­ers of­ten aren’t — and the Lak­ers’ young core — Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Bran­don In­gram and Kyle Kuzma — hasn’t had to deal with stress like this.

Whether or not the team wins this sea­son, James’ pres­ence in Los An­ge­les has put an abrupt end to the fran­chise’s re­build. The Lak­ers might not be cham­pi­onship con­tenders this sea­son — and who knows, James might even make them that — but by hav­ing LeBron on board, the Lak­ers cer­tainly will be soon.

And every­one will be watch­ing.

Every year, it seems, peo­ple ask this ques­tion. The War­riors are in the midst of one of the best runs in the mod­ern NBA with three cham­pi­onships in four years and four straight Western Con­fer­ence ti­tles. Their dom­i­nance will some­day fas­ci­nate his­to­ri­ans while it con­tin­ues to bore ca­sual view­ers.

The chal­lengers in the con­fer­ence aren’t as strong as they were a year ago, with the Rock­ets’ top two wing de­fend­ers, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, de­part­ing in free agency and with tur­moil break­ing up the Spurs.

The Rock­ets will still have a chance, es­pe­cially if they’re the team that fig­ures out how to tran­si­tion Carmelo An­thony from a leader into a use­ful role player.

The Jazz de­fense is for real and guard Dono­van Mitchell looks like a star, but they don’t come close to match­ing the War­riors’ tal­ent. Thun­der stars Rus­sell West­brook and Paul Ge­orge prob­a­bly don’t have enough tal­ent around them to do more than take a few games in a se­ries.

That leaves the Lak­ers, the team with prob­a­bly the big­gest dis­par­ity be­tween its floor and ceil­ing.

It’s hard to imag­ine a team com­ing out of a re­build bet­ter than the Celtics. Pres­i­dent Danny Ainge emerged from the Doc Rivers/Kevin Gar­nett/Ray Allen/Paul Pierce era with a hot­shot coach (Brad Stevens), free-agent wins (Gor­don Hay­ward, Al Hor­ford), mov­able as­sets (that led to the ac­qui­si­tion of Kyrie Irv­ing) and shrewd draft picks (Jayson Ta­tum, Jaylen Brown and oth­ers).

The stage is set for the Celtics to step into the void in the NBA Fi­nals with James mov­ing to the Lak­ers. In their way, the 76ers seem primed to take an­other step for­ward, es­pe­cially if Markelle Fultz plays like a No. 1 pick. They have two fu­ture su­per­stars in Ben Sim­mons and Joel Em­biid and the right role play­ers to con­tend.

The Rap­tors are a ques­tion mark be­cause of their changes, but it’s hard to see how they would be worse by swap­ping Leonard for DeRozan un­less in­juries or chem­istry is­sues get in the way.

It feels like the Celtics’ con­fer­ence to lose, with their com­bi­na­tion of topline tal­ent, depth and coach­ing un­matched in the East. More than any­one else in the NBA, the Celtics are the big­gest threat to the War­riors.

There might be more ob­vi­ous is­sues, but the Hawks made the big­gest gamble on draft night by swap­ping the rights to rookie of the year fa­vorite Luka Don­cic for Ok­la­homa point guard Trae Young and a fu­ture first-round pick.

Don­cic has a ready-made NBA game — size, shoot­ing, play­mak­ing — and should be a corner­stone piece for the Mav­er­icks in the postDirk Now­itzki fu­ture the team will soon face. Eval­u­a­tors have had the Euro­pean prospect on their radar since he was 16, and he helped Real Madrid win a Euroleague ti­tle last sea­son at 19.

Hawks gen­eral man­ager Travis Sch­lenk is bet­ting on Young. Sch­lenk, the as­sis­tant GM for the War­riors be­fore tak­ing over the Rock­ets in 2017, drafted the point guard who was most of­ten com­pared to Stephen Curry. While Young’s fresh­man sea­son at Ok­la­homa was in­con­sis­tent as de­fenses threw ev­ery­thing his way and his Sum­mer League per­for­mance was un­even, Sch­lenk is gam­bling that Young can stretch de­fenses with his un­lim­ited range and carve them up with his pass­ing.

It was a big risk, and we prob­a­bly won’t know if it worked out for a few years. But if Don­cic makes a Ben Sim­mons-es­que im­pres­sion on the Mav­er­icks — and he might — and Young’s sum­mer strug­gles con­tinue into the sea­son, it won’t look good.

Maybe it’s the prob­a­bil­ity that the War­riors will end up back in the fi­nals be­fore lift­ing an­other tro­phy. Maybe it’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive of how fans love player move­ment and ru­mors as much as they do pick-and-rolls and wideopen 3-point­ers.

What­ever the rea­son, a ton of what hap­pens this sea­son will be about what’s go­ing to hap­pen next sum­mer.

Irv­ing, Leonard, Jimmy But­ler and Klay Thomp­son will be un­re­stricted free agents (though Irv­ing gave the Celtics a ver­bal com­mit­ment he would re-sign), while Kevin Du­rant is a vir­tual lock to opt out, head­lin­ing a huge class of avail­able tal­ent.

But­ler’s free-agency drama has al­ready be­gun with his trade de­mand, and with big-mar­ket teams set to bring in top-tier play­ers (the Knicks, Lak­ers and Clip­pers are set to have salary-cap room), player move­ment is cer­tain to be a con­stant topic of con­ver­sa­tion.

It will be a fit­ting se­quel to last sum­mer, when a hand­ful of stars, led by James, changed teams.

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