Once NBA media week is behind us, teams will be off to China, Hawaii, insert your exotic destination here, for training camps. With injuries and free agency wrecking havoc around the league, this is the first time in nearly a decade in which both conferences are wide open.
The only thing I feel fairly certain about is Zion Williamson will be the rookie of the year. After that, it’s like the first two seasons of “Game of Thrones” — anybody can be taken out. So with that being said, I present five things to look out for this season. If you’re looking for bold, grandiose predictions about most valuable players and upsets, you’ve come to the wrong column. What I offer is way more important than that.
Ben Simmons will make a three
I’ll admit, I’m throwing shade here. Kinda. Dennis Rodman made three-point baskets. Ben Wallace made three-pointers. DeAndre Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal have made a combined two three-point shots and that is two more than Simmons. It’s so strange to have someone be both a difficult matchup and self-check at the same time, but heading into the season that’s exactly what Simmons is.
Now rumor has he has been working on his jump shot and will no longer be afraid to pull the trigger from outside of the paint. If that’s true, and he can make open jump shots with regularity, the Lakers and Clippers are in deep trouble. But right now, I’d be happy if he made jumpers with irregularity. Not only is he 0 for 17 from deep, last season he made less than 10% of his shots from 15 to 19 feet.
Lonzo Ball … All-Star
Since the NBA/ABA merger only three players have led the league in assists and not made at least one All-Star team: Johnny Moore, Rod Strickland and Andre Miller. Moore had a stretch of five consecutive seasons in which he averaged at least nine assists per game and is one of nine players to have his jersey retired by the San Antonio Spurs. Basketball aficionados recognize Rod Strickland as one of the coldest point guards ever — period — and know his All-Star omission had more to do with off-the-court hiccups than hoops. Miller was on the cusp of greatness after averaging 16.5 points, an NBA-leading 10.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals his third season in the league, but was traded to the Clippers. He never recovered.
All of which brings us to Ball. His unselfishness, spatial intelligence and size already made him a candidate to be a top assist guy. And now that he doesn’t have to share those duties with former Lakers teammate LeBron James, the likelihood that the player who averaged 7.2 assists per game his rookie season improves and that number dramatically increases. With Klay Thompson out, D’Angelo Russell’s new location and Dwyane Wade’s retirement, there is a natural opening in the backcourt for a new All-Star. Yeah, Donovan Mitchell and C.J McCollum are better shooters but history shows it’s rare for the league’s top assists man not to play in the All-Star game at some point. Given all of the other things Ball does well — he has career averages of 10 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals — if the New Orleans Pelicans are able to flirt with .500 and he’s healthy, it will come as no surprise to see Ball’s All-Star recognition come sooner than later.
Andre Iguodala is MNP (most needed player)
There is a reason why the Memphis Grizzlies believe the 35-year-old role player is a valuable commodity — he can be the key to an NBA championship. I know that sounds like fanboy hyperbole but hear me out. The last eight Finals MVP trophies have been handed to James or the player he was matched against — Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Iguodala. As the game has moved from post play to three-point shooting, having a small forward skilled enough to play outside yet strong enough not to be overpowered on the block has proven to be the key to postseason glory.
Iguodala has been hampered by injuries, but as he demonstrated with his lock-down defense on Portland All-Star guard Damian Lillard in the closing seconds of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, he is still very capable of making life difficult for elite scorers. The Clippers could throw Leonard, Paul George and Iguodala on James every minute of a game. The Lakers could slow down the Clippers for long stretches by having Iguodala harass George whenever Leonard sits for a breather. The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics could use a player to shadow Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. And, of course, if Iguodala is traded to a team that is willing to buy him out, a return to the Golden State Warriors is not entirely out of the question. Call him the ultimate glue guy. Call him the oil to a well-run machine. Call him four-time champion if he lands in L.A.
Vince Carter beats Williamson in dunk contest
Normally, I don’t like sequels decades in the making. The “Terminator” franchise has gotten so ridiculous, I’m now rooting for the machines and the latest “Rambo” movie looks like a cross between “Taken” and “On Golden Pond.” But I’m all in on Carter’s entry into the dunk contest 20 years after the elbow dunk in Oakland because there’s a highlight reel of him dunking last season. There’s a clip of him doing a 360 in warmups. There’s a clip of him performing a double-clutch dunk in dress clothes. Carter’s presence during NBA All-Star weekend wouldn’t be like the league throwing a gimpy Dirk Nowitzki a send-off party.
It would be a move that could make the contest interesting again because, let’s face it, for much of the last 20 years, it has been disappointing. The top players no longer participate, creativity has dried up and as a result anticipation is low. Williamson’s power and magnetic smile make him a natural to be a favorite to win. And with Jordan Brands’ new golden boy putting on a show in the building that Jordan built (2020 All-Star weekend is in Chicago), the electricity could return. But he needs a foe to make it a true competition. What better storyline than Williamson squaring up against the dude who won this contest before the rookie was even born?
And the winner is …
I don’t like predicting the future. James slips and things fall apart; Clippers try to tank and Doc Rivers drags them into the playoffs anyway; Kyrie Irving proved to be the problem and not the answer in Boston, and so on. I will say this: no player has more pressure on him this season than Kyle Kuzma. Why? Because he’s the one the Lakers didn’t trade. He’s the one that presumably will get most of the open looks off of double teams on James and Anthony Davis. He’s the one that said he can be that third star once Leonard decided to join the Clippers, despite being among the worse high-volume three-point shooters in the league (roughly 30% on six attempts per game). Everyone knows what James and Davis are going to do but Kuzma is the question mark. With 61% of his two-point field goals coming off of an assist, playing off of the ball will not be a problem for him. But the third-best player on James’ championship teams — Chris Bosh and Kevin Love — sacrificed scoring to do the dirty work. Now for his part, Davis has expressed a desire to win defensive player of the year, so maybe he can cover Kuzma’s deficiencies. But seeing how James’ better defensive days are in the rear view, it might be too much to ask Davis to provide that much cover. And if it’s between James being on the court during crunch time and Kuzma, we all know how that’s going to go.
Now I was an early ticket buyer on the Kuz-Train. He arrived from Utah offensively polished and having repeatedly shown he’s not afraid of the big moments. But now comes the point in his career in which he transitions from showing us what he’s got into being a dependable piece on a championship-caliber team. Big difference and everyone can’t handle that smoke. If Kuzma struggles, he’s going to be on the bench in the fourth quarter watching veteran reserve Jared Dudley. But if he can, it won’t matter if he’s being guarded by Draymond Green, A.C. Green, or a pot of collard greens — Lakers in six.