The N.B.A.’s 75th season began Tuesday night with wins by the Nets and the Clippers. A new calendar year arrives in just nine days.
The time, then, has never been more right to consult our crystal roundball for the usual batch of eight (almost) fearless predictions for what awaits in #thisleague in coming months:
James Harden will be traded no later than Jan. 25 — two full months before this season’s trade deadline.
The initial rumblings, at the start of Harden’s standoff with the Houston Rockets, suggested that a trade was unlikely to materialize until closer to the March 25 deadline. The Rockets were determined to first see if they could repair their relationship with Harden, then to leverage the two guaranteed seasons left on his contract on the trade market.
More current rumblings indicate that tension within the Rockets is mounting each day Harden goes untraded. The Athletic illuminated some of that tension with a report Tuesday that Harden recently threw a ball in practice at Jae’Sean Tate, his new rookie teammate. Both sides now want to move on as quickly as possible. It’s time.
I still regard Philadelphia as the most likely landing spot for Harden, largely because Ben Simmons most closely fits the description of the sort of building-block player Houston is holding out for in return. I’m also told that the familiarity between Daryl Morey and his Rockets successor, Rafael Stone, will outweigh any lingering ill feelings from Morey’s move to Philadelphia as president of basketball operations less than two weeks after he walked away from his Houston contract. I know Morey has said that Simmons is going nowhere. I also know Morey made similar statements about Chris Paul before he traded Paul to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook.
The Heat let it be known this week that they are not actively pursuing Harden, which is a blow for the Rockets because Miami is one of those fearless teams with the oft-proven gumption to embrace an enigma like Harden in spite of the various red flags. The Sixers and the Nets, though, may not be the only other options: In recent days, it has become known that Toronto, Boston and Denver have also had exploratory talks with Houston.
The Rockets will keep probing the market, as eager to move on now as the superstar they catered to for the past eight seasons.
At least three of the following five players will be traded this season in addition to Harden: LaMarcus Aldridge, Aaron Gordon, Buddy Hield, Zach LaVine and Kevin Love. Maybe even all five.
Love’s case is the most intriguing. He has $91.5 million left on his Cleveland contract with two more seasons after this one. Yet the flurry of contract extensions we’ve seen during the N.B.A.’s truncated off-season may encourage a team or two out there to sacrifice some future salary-cap flexibility to absorb Love’s deal, knowing that free-agent options will be more limited than anticipated.
Both Aldridge and Gordon are interesting candidates with their shorter remaining contracts to slot in Boston’s $28.5 million trade exception, which the Celtics (depending on their willingness to run up their luxury-tax bill) can use to add absorb a huge salary in a trade.
Kevin Durant will be the first player in N.B.A. history to go from an Achilles’ tendon tear to Most Valuable Player Award candidacy.
In Tuesday’s New York Times, as part of a staff compendium of award predictions for the coming season, I went with Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks as my M.V.P. selection. As strong as Doncic’s case will surely be, I’ve been asking myself if I should have gone with Durant.
It is super early in his comeback, true, and the Nets will be wary of overtaxing their star forward during the regular season. But Durant is shooting, moving and, yes, dunking as fluidly as we’ve ever seen a player post-Achilles’ tendon surgery.
Even at 32, Durant looks highly capable of changing the devastating history of the most dreaded injury in the sport. Then again, Durant is one of the sport’s true offensive unicorns, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
The Eastern Conference will earn your respect.
I can’t claim to have invented the phrase, but I think I’ve been using “Leastern Conference” jabs in stories for almost 20 years. Even in recent seasons that produced a champion from the East, depth on that side of the N.B.A. has often been lacking.
This season will be different. Although the West still has more teams that can credibly compete for a playoff spot, it appears that more challengers to the Lakers’ throne (starting with Milwaukee, Miami and the Nets) can be found in the East.
Sorting out the East’s top seven, if the Indiana Pacers are indeed more dynamic offensively under new coach Nate Bjorkgren, should be complicated and fun.
Finishing sixth in each conference will mean more than it ever has before.
One of the best things about the N.B.A.’s play-in playoff round, beyond giving four more teams than usual a pathway to the postseason, is how much more value finishing sixth in the East or West holds.
The No. 6 seed clinches a first-round playoff berth. The No. 7 seed slips into a four-team scramble that, in the worst-case scenario, could result in an early off-season. In the N.B.A.’s ongoing quest to make the regular season more meaningful (and watchable), this should help.
The No. 9 or No. 10 seed in either conference would have to win two consecutive games to bump off No. 7 or No. 8 for a playoff spot.
Game 1: The format calls for the seventh-place team in each conference seed to play No. 8, with the winner claiming the No. 7 seed.
Game 2: The No. 9 seed goes up against No. 10. The loser is eliminated.
Game 3: The loser of Game 1 faces the winner of Game 2. The Game 3 winner claims the final playoff berth, with the loser heading to the lottery.
There will be All-Star balloting, like usual, even if there is no All-Star Game.
The N.B.A. has already announced that its 2021 All-Star Weekend, which was scheduled to be held in Indianapolis, has been postponed to 2024 to give the Hoosier State another shot at hosting. Indianapolis last played host to an N.B.A. All-Star Game in 1985.
I think the league, deep down, would like to arrange a simpler All-Star Game, just this season, if it made sense to do so. That, however, is a lot to ask in these coronavirus times — especially when a true midseason break of some sort is sure to be welcomed by players after the shortest off-season in history for most teams.
Can you live with traditional All-Star balloting, coaches selecting the reserves and the usual Twitter fisticuffs over who got snubbed? I’m pretty sure we’re going to get all that.
The Miami Heat will reach the N.B.A. finals again.
This is going to be harder than it sounds if you remember the above warnings about the East’s top seven.
It will be doubly difficult if you endorse the belief in some league circles that the Heat would not have advanced to the finals at Walt Disney World if not for some bubble anomalies, like the lack of travel and the absence of hostile environments on the road. Miami’s ever-demanding culture for players that puts so much emphasis on fitness and focus, as the theory goes, had its roster primed to cope better than anyone with the long bouts of isolation in the bubble and other mental-health challenges.
I don’t buy it. I think the Heat have a worthy, versatile, defensive-minded team that orbits around Jimmy Butler and will be stronger this season as Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson develop. They beat the Lakers twice in the finals, remember, despite the injuries sustained by Adebayo and Goran Dragic.
Miami was not a mirage.
There will be a loud campaign for the N.B.A. to start cooking up a new all-time team, featuring 75 players as the league’s 75th birthday nears in June, to replace or update the league’s list of 50 greatest players named in October 1996, the league’s 50th season.
And if I’m wrong and no loud campaign materializes, I will start it myself.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)
Q: The West is obviously going to have more than eight teams vying for playoff spots. Which teams do you think we can rule out now? — Natalie Anfuso (Wayne, Pa.)
Stein: I totally understand why you’re asking, because it’s a difficult question to answer. If you’re looking to rule out teams completely, I would feel comfortable naming only Oklahoma City — and that’s just because the Thunder have aggressively embraced a rebuilding posture. It wouldn’t surprise me, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander running the offense and Al Horford and Luguentz Dort anchoring the defense, if even the Thunder proved to be a tougher out than expected.
Every team in the West that finished eighth or lower last season has grander visions of this season’s ceiling. No. 8 Portland believes it will contend for a top-four seed after the acquisition of Robert Covington and some additional roster tweaking. Memphis placed ninth and is counting on a similar finish, at worst, purely through Ja Morant’s presumed improvement in Year 2. And No. 10 Phoenix is widely regarded as playoff material now after going 8-0 at the Walt Disney World bubble and then trading for Chris Paul.
While outsiders await a potential trade that ships out a veteran like LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan or Patty Mills, No. 11 San Antonio is optimistic that the experience its younger players gained in the bubble will make the Spurs a playoff sleeper. No. 13 New Orleans is one of the more difficult teams to assess and figures to have a puncher’s chance to reach the postseason purely based on the track record of its new coach, Stan Van Gundy, and Zion Williamson’s promising preseason. Golden State, of course, is expected to bounce back from the league’s worst record (15-50) to contend for a playoff berth — even with Klay Thompson out for the season after he tore his right Achilles’ tendon in November.
I have more confidence in Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell clicking and No. 14 Minnesota joining that mix ahead of No. 12 Sacramento, but the Timberwolves and the Kings have to be considered playoff long shots in a conference this deep. The Kings, remember, have missed the postseason for a league-high 14 consecutive seasons and, even with a revamped front office, left numerous rival teams stunned by their decision not to match Atlanta’s four-year, $72 million offer sheet to Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Q: Maybe it wasn’t part of the wildest off-season ever, but Luke Ridnour had a wild week in 2015 — he was traded five times, if I remember correctly. Did he ever play for any of them? — Barron Hall (Chicago)
Stein: Good follow-up question to our recent debate in this space about the proper amount of awe in response to the leaguewide frenzy of transactions in the days before and after the Nov. 18 draft. Ridnour was actually traded four times in a week in June 2015 — one trade more than Trevor Ariza was subjected to last month — but he never played for any of the teams involved.
In fact, Ridnour never played in the league again after his stint with Orlando in 2014-15. He had a nonguaranteed contract worth $2.75 million for the 2015-16 season, which is why Ridnour kept being moved, but he decided to stop playing after Toronto acquired him from Oklahoma City in trade No. 4. The first three trades sent him from Orlando to Memphis, Memphis to Charlotte and Charlotte to Oklahoma City.
Ariza is on the Thunder’s opening-night roster and, according to my old friends at HoopsHype, has been traded 10 times in his career — more than any other player in league history. Ariza is likely to be mentioned frequently as the potential recipient of an in-season contract buyout that makes him a free-agent target for contending teams like the Lakers, but who would be surprised if Oklahoma City finds a way to trade him again?
Q: I honestly don’t know what normal is anymore, but the last five minutes of the Golden State-Sacramento game last Tuesday night were pure joy. All the rookies and reserves were playing their hearts out, Kyle Guy’s buzzer-beater gave the Kings a win, and Steve Kerr, Alvin Gentry and Luke Walton were all laughing through their masks. As a basketball-starved, 70-year-old woman, I enjoyed all of it. Bring it on! — Gigi Coe
Stein: You get the last word, Gigi. Let’s hope, as the regular season opens Tuesday night, that we have lots of scenes like the one you describe to dissect and savor.
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo last week became the sixth player to sign a so-called supermax contract extension, joining Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Houston’s James Harden, Washington’s Russell Westbrook and Houston’s John Wall. Two marquee stars who were eligible to sign supermax deals with their former teams but declined: Anthony Davis (New Orleans) and Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio). Utah’s Rudy Gobert was also eligible for the supermax but signed a five-year deal on Sunday with the Jazz at roughly $23 million below the highest amount he could have received.
The supermax contract was introduced to help incumbent teams retain superstar players, after Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State in July 2016, but Harden recently became the third of those six supermax recipients to request a trade. Westbrook has been traded twice since signing his supermax with Oklahoma City in September 2017. Wall signed his with Washington in July 2017 and was traded for Westbrook on Dec. 2 after both players asked for a trade.
Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball threw some of the best passes I’ve ever seen during the preseason — including a one-handed bounce pass against Orlando on Saturday with skip and bend that should be enjoyed over and over — but Ball, a rookie guard, is struggling as badly as feared with his shooting. Drafted No. 3 over all by the Hornets in November, Ball shot 26.2 percent from the field and 27.3 percent on 3-pointers in Charlotte’s four exhibition games.
With a career conversion rate of 44.3 percent, Philadelphia’s Seth Curry ranks second in league history in 3-point percentage behind Golden State Coach Steve Kerr, who was a career 45.4 percent shooter from long range. The Warriors’ Stephen Curry is sixth at 43.5 percent, behind Hubert Davis (44.1 percent), Drazen Petrovic (43.7 percent) and Duncan Robinson (43.7 percent).
We can’t forget that Stephen Curry, coming into this season, had attempted 5,739 3-pointers in his 11 N.B.A. seasons. That’s more than Kerr (1,599), his brother, Seth (1,007), and Miami’s Robinson (641) combined (3,247).