Post NBA writers Marc Berman and Brian Lewis and columnist Mike Vaccaro tackle 10 of the biggest storylines of the season:
Biggest question of the season
Berman: The NBA aced the Orlando bubble avoiding COVID-19 disruptions, but this is a new animal. The league is precariously sending teams across the country with the same regularity — and a handful of teams are permitting fans. Those road protocols limiting players from leaving hotel is key to season’s survival. Just one positive test came back last week.
Lewis: James Harden’s status will loom over the entire season until he’s moved. Will he end up in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, elsewhere, or sulking in Houston all the way to the deadline?
Vaccaro: How much season will there be? Encouraging news about vaccines notwithstanding, will every team be able to play the full 72?
This will end up being a big story
Berman: Everyone is gifting the Lakers another championship trophy after adding rugged forward, Montrezl Harrell, center Marc Gasol and live-wire point guard Dennis Schroder. But expect early struggles because of the incredibly quick turnaround after the bubble title in mid-October. LeBron James and Anthony Davis will have difficulty finding motivation at outset as they get used to their new mates and flying to the East Coast again. Either way, the Lakers’ bid for an 18th title is must-watch theater.
Lewis :The bubble may have been the safest place in America. But without it, just watching the chaos in college football portends the havoc COVID may wreak on the NBA season.
Vaccaro: Turmoil in Tinseltown. Will the Lakers suffer a championship hangover? Will the Clippers realize Doc Rivers wasn’t the problem?
What I think we’ll see out of Zion Williamson
Berman: It’s all about his knees staying right. Zion’s game is as electrifying as advertised and he’d win the Sophomore of the Year Award if there was one.
Lewis: Expect more minutes, 25.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and a ton of frightening dunks the NBA will market the hell out of.
Vaccaro: He will officially enter beast mode. A year of learning what it takes in the NBA will yield a healthier version, one ready to become one of the league’s most prominent faces.
This team will be better than expected
Berman: I don’t want to place the Berman Jinx on this, but Tom Thibodeau is a coaching wizard and the young prospects, particularly RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox, showed preseason signs of vast improvement for the Knicks. Las Vegas placed the Over/Under for wins at 22.5. Take the north side, especially with rookie point guard Immanuel Quickley looking real.
Lewis: The Suns took a quantum leap in the bubble. But adding Chris Paul could lift them up the West standings and Monty Williams into the Coach of the Year picture.
Vaccaro: Now, maybe you don’t count it as much when it’s surpassing such a low bar but seeing the effect a real coach can have on the Knicks will be fascinating.
This team will be worse than expected
Berman: The Toronto/Tampa Bay Raptors will be away from home the entire season and will feel the losses of role-playing big men Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. This was a team built on quality depth. Now that Fred VanVleet has his big contract, he’ll face a whole new wave of pressure, and Kyle Lowry turns 35 in March.
Lewis: The East is getting better and Kyle Lowry is getting older. After winning the 2019 title and finishing second in the East last season, the Raptors could easily fall to sixth.
Vaccaro: The Heat were the darlings of the bubble and they will still be one of the league’s most intriguing teams. But they can no longer sneak up on anyone. How will they adjust?
This player will emerge this season
Berman: Caris Levert’s bubble stardom was no fluke. In his new role, figure on Levert emerging as Sixth Man of the Year for the Nets, the likely Eastern Conference champions.
Lewis: With Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig gone, watch what the Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr. (22 & 8.6 in the seeding games) does with those extra minutes.
Vaccaro: The Suns’ Devin Booker has always had the goods to make for a worthwhile watch. But now that he has a legit wingman in Chris Paul there’s no telling what he might be capable of.
This player will regress this season
Berman: Hawks point guard Trae Young has done nothing but lose in Atlanta, but now the focus is on Atlanta emerging as a playoff team. Young is a terrible defender and needs to not only pile up points (29.6 ppg). The 2019-20 All-Star has to be a floor general guiding his upgraded team to key wins late in games.
Lewis: Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge is 35, coming off three-year lows in points and rebounds and had rotator cuff surgery in June.
Vaccaro: I hope I’m wrong here, but Denver’s Jamal Murray was such a spectacular force in the bubble it’ll be hard to duplicate that. And now he’ll be a guy far more eyes than ever will be on.
If I were this coach, I’d be worried about my status
Berman: Scott Brooks is on the hottest seat in D.C. aside from Donald Trump — with Russell Westbrook on board for a reunion. Figuring Brooks signed off on this move, the Wizards better be among the top 10 or it’s over. There’s too much talent here — including second-year prospect Rui Hachimura and rookie Deni Avdija.
Lewis: Scott Brooks got through last season, but his seat has to be even hotter now.
Vaccaro: Part of the deal you make when you take on a talented team is expectations. But it would really behoove Mike Budenholzer to lead the Bucks to the Finals, at last.
Berman: Kevin Durant will be the feel-good story as the extra time to heal his Achilles due to the pandemic is a benefit. KD puts the Nets on the map for good in Brooklyn with a stellar season that vaults the franchise back to The Finals.
Lewis: Giannis Antetokounmpo has the built-up equity to win the award again, but fast-rising Dallas star Luka Doncic will probably deserve it.
Vaccaro: Giannis Antetokounmpo has gotten better every year he’s been in the NBA and he’s still only 26 years old. Expect him to be fueled by the Bucks’ bubble flameout and, of course, justify his new mega-contract.
Berman: In a rematch of the 2002 Finals, Lakers take out Nets in 7 games in a LeBron-vs.-KD classic.
Lewis: After surviving the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, LeBron and the Lakers drill the Bucks to defend their crown.
Vaccaro: Mavericks over the Bucks in 7. And, gosh, would that ever be a fun one to watch.