TOP NBA STORYLINES
1. The stars align out West: The superstars continued their trek to West powers, with Chris Paul joining James Harden in Houston, the Thunder getting plenty of help for Russell Westbrook and the Timberwolves adding Jimmy Butler. That alone will make for some intriguing matchups throughout the season.
2. Irving to the Celtics: Kyrie Irving doesn’t want to play with LeBron James? Let the drama begin. With all the attention out west, it’s the big storyline in the East, with the Cavaliers getting Isaiah Thomas and the coveted Nets’ first-round pick in the deal. Along with Gordon Hayward, the Celtics have a squad, but can they hang with the Warriors?
3. Thunder strike: After a disappointing exit in the playoffs, they not only got Russell Westbrook some help — they also got him some elite talent in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The fact they were able to do it without mortgaging the future is stupefying. They’re right among the top contenders in the wild, wild West
4. Schedule stretch: The season starts a week earlier this year to account for fewer back-to-backs and instances of four games in five nights. The league also is discouraging teams from sitting superstars for rest and letting teams travel earlier on road trips. It should pay off with some better quality games.
5. All-Star shift: This will be the first year of the new format, with the top two vote-getters as captains and drafting their teams, regardless of conference. It’ll add some spice to the midseason classic, but will it mean they’ll be playing more defense in the first three quarters?
1. Russell Westbrook, Thunder: Averaging a triple-double last season was an amazing feat, but what does he do for an encore? The stats might not be as eye-popping, but if he gets them to the West finals, that could be a bigger trick.
2. LeBron James, Cavaliers: He’s a top-two MVP candidate every year, but with Irving going to Boston, James could be fueled by a new rival in the East and be motivated to become a bigger dominating force, with an aging Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose by his side.
3. Kevin Durant, Warriors: It would be hard for either Durant or Steph Curry to win MVP because they feed off each other. After getting his first title and taking some of the pressure off Curry, he could make that a little more possible.
4. James Harden, Rockets: Many thought Harden should have won the MVP last season, but adding Chris Paul will take the ball out of his hands some — and that’s where Harden excelled. Still, they can play off each other and make the Rockets a true contender.
5. Kyrie Irving, Celtics: It’s not that farfetched, as he knows the recipe to the secret sauce in Cleveland but even though they have a talent upgrade, the Celtics still need to put all the pieces together to be able to knock off the Cavs in the playoffs.
1. Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks: He could turn out to be the best point guard in the draft and with more than adequate playing time, he’ll get a chance to flourish.
2. Markelle Fultz, Sixers: The No. 1 pick is bringing excitement to Philly, where the misery has lasted long enough. The time is now.
3. Lonzo Ball, Lakers: Is it all bluster and hype or will Ball be the second coming of Magic Johnson? The answer is likely somewhere in between.
4. Donovan Mitchell, Jazz: He dropped in the draft but he’s an athletic freak and will fit in well with the Jazz, bringing a unique blend of defense and athleticism.
5. Jayson Tatum, Celtics: Unlike most of the other top picks, his team doesn’t have to play him extensively. Tatum has the whole package, though.
TEAMS ON THE RISE
1. Thunder: They went from an also-ran and an early exit in the playoffs to a serious contender in the West. Although they might not have the depth to stay with the elite teams, they will make a serious push and win at least a round this year. If they can convince Paul George to stick around past this year, it’ll be a major coup.
2. Timberwolves: When they had a chance to get better on draft night, they went big, getting Jimmy Butler. He’ll add some veteran savvy and a defensive presence their young stars can rally around. They’ll make the playoffs and can take a bigger step if they can finish games and buy into Tom Thibodeau’s principles.
3. 76ers: If they can stay healthy — and that’s a big “if” — the Sixers could prove The Process was actually worth it. They have one of the biggest lineups, if Joel Embiid (7-feet), Ben Simmons (6-10) and Dario Saric (6-10) can jell with new addition J.J. Redick and the rest of their core.
4. Nuggets: They’ve been a young team on the cusp, but adding a veteran presence in Paul Millsap will do wonders for their development. The Nuggets were wise to keep Gary Harris for the long term and if Nikola Jokic can continue to improve, they’ll rise to the playoffs in the difficult West.
5. Lakers: They added Lonzo Ball in the draft and that should be the key to linking the puzzle pieces with Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Kyle Kuzma might turn out to be a draft-day steal for them. Magic Johnson looks to have things going in the right direction — and at least the excitement is there.