NBA BURNING QUESTIONS: Who rules the league, is LeBron cooked and more

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers during warm up before a preseason game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on October 10, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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Here comes NBA basketball. But so much has changed since the Toronto Raptors shocked the world and won the title.

The best player in franchise history headed home, his steady long-time teammate also left; the Golden State Warriors dynasty crumbled; Anthony Davis joined forces with LeBron James with the Lakers; Jimmy Butler changed teams. Again. Al Horford beefed up the Sixers and took something away from the Celtics in the process; Russell Westbrook rejoined James Harden; New Orleans won the Zion Williamson lottery; The Knicks signed 40 different power forwards and still stink; The Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon but added a second Lopez brother; DeMarcus Cousins suffered another major injury and this is finally the last time we will write in a season preview that Vince Carter is gearing up for another season.

More than a quarter of the NBA’s players changed teams this off-season, including six of the 15 who made an All-NBA team (including 3/5ths of the Second Team). So, there’s lots to digest ahead of the Raptors getting their championship rings and banner.

Here are five burning questions that stand out (and a few smaller bonus queries):

1) Can Kawhi do it again?

Very few people, other than perhaps Leonard himself, thought he’d carry Toronto to a title the way he had helped San Antonio to one before suffering a significant injury. But Leonard had a load-managed regular season, followed by a playoff run for the ages, lifting the team on his broad shoulders with brutal efficiency.

It’s extremely rare for the best player on a championship roster to bolt. Rarer still is doing that and then winning again with yet another group. Kawhi has a lot of help, having engineered Paul George’s homecoming too and many consider the Clippers the favourites. He’s said he’ll play more games, being another year away from the original injury and they’ll need some time to gel, but the league hasn’t been this wide open in years (the Golden State juggernaut was very hard to bet against) and the other team in Los Angeles will be a force, if the stars stay healthy.

2) How will that Harden/Westbrook thing work in Houston?

Well, this corner got a first-hand look in Tokyo at the early stages and it was both exhilarating and dicey at times. Westbrook’s speed opens up a lot and his presence guarantees a superstar will almost always be on the court for Mike D’Antoni’s team, but there’s only one ball. Infighting broke apart the promising Boston Celtics last year in part because there were too many cooks in the kitchen. This duo has been close since they were kids and they were fine in OKC, but then again Harden was just a sixth man then. Since 2015, Westbrook’s usage rate has been 35.3%, the highest in the league. Just behind him? Harden at 34.8%. Harden’s all the way up to 38.4% over the past two seasons. Something’s going to have to give. Harden won’t have to change as much, he’ll still be the alpha, but Westbrook is going to have to get used to playing a completely different way. So far in the preseason, Harden’s remained an MVP front-runner, while it’s been turnover city and a lot of three-point misses for Westbrook. The Rockets don’t have much depth, but don’t lack for star power.

3) Did the Bucks drop the ball or still the team to beat?

Milwaukee had the best regular season and the best story in Giannis taking over and winning his first MVP award and had Toronto on the ropes, nearly taking a 3-0 series lead in the East Final. But Malcolm Brogdon was massive for the Bucks in the playoffs while Eric Bledsoe and others stumbled. He was allowed to leave because the Bucks didn’t want to pay him. The team got a decent return in terms of future draft assets, but championship windows don’t come around often, nor do players like Antetokounmpo, so it was a bit strange to see them cheap out (yes, Brogdon has had a lot of injuries, but he’s still been a tremendous and crucial player for them).

How much will it bite the Bucks, if at all? A lot of that depends on how Bledsoe bounces back and on how much veterans George Hill and Wesley Matthews have left in the tank. Milwaukee might still win the conference, maybe even the title, but if they fall short, letting the former rookie of the year go will be re-litigated over and over.

4) Does size matter again?

The NBA’s gone three-point crazy for years and lineups you’d never see in the past are in vogue (like two point guards starting together or no true centre being on the floor).

Some teams are pushing back on this. The Sixers will pair big men Joel Embiid and Al Horford at times and already have a supersized point guard (Ben Simmons) and a big small forward (when Tobias Harris plays there) and all of the wingspan in rookie Matisse Thybulle. Many pundits think the Sixers will win the title, A different approach for sure. Indiana is starting Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis beside each other and hoping it works out. In a perfect world, both would spend all of their time at centre in today’s NBA. Gigantic Marc Gasol had an immense impact on the Raptors last season and they are expecting even more from him this time around. Embiid might win MVP. A 7-foot-1 centre (Deandre Ayton) finished third in rookie of the year voting and is a cornerstone in Phoenix and will even spend time at power forward this year. Giant guard Luka Doncic is being complemented by 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas and 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert is the best defensive player and the fulcrum of the potentially excellent Utah Jazz. It’s not all little waterbugs darting around sinking three-pointers.

5) Is this the year Father Time catches LeBron?

We say no, but it’s something millions of people are talking about worldwide. Nobody has been as good at his age as LeBron in recent seasons (few have been as good as him at any age). He keeps posting massive numbers, but nobody’s still been expected to be great in his age 35 season either (James will turn 35 on Dec. 30).

Usually the decline is steep, but he still averaged 27.4 points, 8.3 assists and 8.5 rebounds at 33-34. And that was after playing longer seasons than anyone for a decade, campaigns filled with trips to the Finals and Olympic berths. He should be exhausted. Yet, by all accounts James is extremely motivated to go for MVP No. 5 (which would tie for the second-most ever behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and to remind everyone just how talented he is. Having another ultra-elite player (Anthony Davis) on his side now shouldn’t hurt. With apologies to Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kyrie Irving, Davis is the best player James has ever run with. Davis can carry a huge load and should pair nearly perfectly with James. A Finals run feels more likely than a major LeBron drop-off.

BONUS THOUGHTS:

Who will be the NBA’s breakout players?

Giannis ascended in 2018-19 and Pascal Siakam earned most improved honours, with D’Aaron Fox and D’Angelo Russell also making big jumps. We could see Boston’s Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown becoming all-stars, or Miami’s Bam Adebayo becoming a household name. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac, San Antonio’s Dejuante Murray, Charlotte’s Miles Bridges, New Orleans forward Brandon Ingram and Washington’s Thomas Bryant also intrigue. Memphis forward Jaren Jackson Jr. is also going to be very, very good, but it might not all come together until Year 3.

Who will be the first coach fired?

The oddsmakers say Washington’s Scott Brooks, but we can’t see that. Nobody expects the Wizards to be good, even with Bradley Beal signed long-term and happy. Same deal with Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City who has the next highest odds. The Thunder will stink, it won’t be a surprise. D’Antoni is an interesting name. It’s quite the experiment (as mentioned) and he is on an expiring contract. Brett Brown is under a lot of pressure in Philadelphia and heightened expectations coupled with off-court issues could put Luke Walton on the firing line in Sacramento.

The NBA’s best Canadian in 2019-20 will be?

Denver’s Jamal Murray would be the obvious pick. The Nuggets should again be near the top of the West and Murray is a crucial player who blends well with MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will run the show with the Thunder and get plenty of minutes and opportunities, while R.J. Barrett, the No. 3 pick by the New York Knicks, came on strong late in the pre-season. Dwight Powell is probably the best under the radar Canuck, while Andrew Wiggins once again has plenty to prove.

Will Chris Paul be traded?

The Thunder was after draft picks, not the former superstar in the Westbrook deal and would be fine with moving him, but that’s easier said than done. Paul will still be owed more than $85 million U.S. after this season, making his contract one of the worst in the league, given his age and injury history. It’s hard to see a match. More likely are new homes for Steven Adams and/or Dennis Schroeder.

Just how horrendous will Charlotte be?

Terry Rozier replaces Kemba Walker, only diehard fans could name four players on the roster, nobody will come to the games and Michael Jordan even cashed out some of his ownership stake. It’s going to ugly, really, really ugly. Charlotte Bobcats ugly.

rwolstat@postmedia.com

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