The court is back in session
LeBron’s big move to L.A., Celtics’ bid for East supremacy on the ’18-19 docket
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.