Every NBA team enters a new season with questions abound, whether it's a championship juggernaut or it plies its trade in Sacramento. They'll all find answers over the next 82 games, but until then, here are 15 queries to consider for the Western Conference's 15 teams.
Teams are listed in predicted order of finish:
Golden State Warriors - Is depth an issue?
When DeMarcus Cousins returns, the Warriors will trot out an entire starting lineup of All-NBA talent, and Boogie's sheer size and presence eliminates the one Warriors weakness opposing teams could exploit. If they're anywhere near full health, no one's beating them four times in seven tries.
Until then, it's fair to argue that this team right now is only six players deep. Once you get past Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and aging reserves Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, Golden State's depth amounts to Damian Jones, Jordan Bell, Jonas Jerebko, Quinn Cook, Kevon Looney, Jacob Evans, and Alfonzo McKinnie. That's not much of a problem when you're as top-heavy as the Warriors, especially when Cousins enters the fold, but a key injury or two before then could leave the champs exposed.
Houston Rockets - Can their D survive key losses (and the addition of 'Melo)?
Between the combination of scoring, playmaking, shooting, and the one-on-one brilliance James Harden and Chris Paul provide, the Rockets should hold steady as the second-best team in the West. However, they'll be hard-pressed to replicate the top-seven defense that proved to be such a threat to the Warriors.
The strength of that defense was its switchability, and while Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker remain, the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute will hurt. Houston needs James Ennis to take Carmelo Anthony's crunch-time minutes as often as possible, and perhaps for Michael Carter-Williams to emerge as a dependable, consistent perimeter defender if they want to keep hanging with the Warriors.
Oklahoma City Thunder - Does OKC's Big Three have another gear?
Partner the league's most fearless attacking guard (Russell Westbrook) with an elite-shooting superstar (Paul George) and an offensive rebounding machine (Steven Adams), and you have the perfectly assembled trio at Oklahoma City's disposal. On top of that, the Thunder jettisoned Anthony, who never quite fit with the team.
|OKC 2017-18||Big 3 + 'Melo||Big 3 w/'Melo off|
|Net Rtg/ 100 poss.||+7.6||+12.7|
Oklahoma City still desperately needs an influx of shooting and for Andre Roberson to be healthy sooner rather than later, but if OKC's Big Three simply plays up to its capabilities, the Thunder should emerge as the West's clear-cut No. 3 seed with a shot at hunting down the Rockets.
Utah Jazz - Can they replicate their late-season surge?
The short answer is no. The Jazz can't possibly win 68 games, which is the pace they were playing at when they closed last season on an absurd 29-6 tear.
Having said that, of all the Western Conference teams you can clump between third through 10th, none enter the season as stable as Utah. The Jazz are among the Association's deepest teams. They're led by one of the league's finest coaches, employ a plethora of capable wings - including role-player extraordinaire Joe Ingles - and boast perhaps the most terrifying defensive presence roaming any gym in the world.
And before you dismiss Donovan Mitchell as a legitimate star capable of carrying a playoff-caliber offense, consider that he scored relatively efficiently while being one of four scorers in league history to post a usage rate of at least 29 percent in his rookie season. On paper, the Jazz should've struggled to run one of the league's worst offenses last season. Instead, they complimented their No. 1 defense with a respectable, middle-of-the-pack attack, and no player was more responsible for that than Mitchell.
Los Angeles Lakers - Are LA's youngsters good enough?
The bet here is yes.
The Lakers' veteran core doesn't have enough shooting, defense, or clear-cut answers at center, but the team has LeBron James and an upstart cast of youngsters that should thrive in James' shadow.
Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart bring an underrated combination of smarts and spacing to compliment LeBron. The margin for error is slim, but if that quartet grows alongside James between October-April, and if even one of the Lakers' vets - like KCP - hits his stride, every West team outside the Warriors is susceptible to fall to L.A.
Denver Nuggets - Is this the year of The Joker?
Nikola Jokic has been an advanced-stats darling since he entered the Association. His box score numbers are gaudy enough for a 23-year-old, and even casual observers should recognize that he's one of the best passing big men we've ever seen. But Jokic's finish to the 2017-18 season was truly something to behold, as he pushed the Nuggets to what was essentially a playoff play-in game on the final night of the regular season by averaging 24 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.4 steals, and a block on 54-48-89 shooting over his last 18 games.
Sit back and let those quarter-season numbers marinate for a second.
If he continues to embrace being an offensive alpha, Jokic is good enough to do that over an entire season. With Paul Millsap healthy, Jamal Murray expected to break out, and Gary Harris continuing to emerge as a standout 3-and-D wing, the Nuggets' ceiling could see them playing deep into May.
If the team hits that ceiling with Jokic picking up where he left off, don't rule out his MVP candidacy.
New Orleans Pelicans - How fast can they go?
There are certainly questions to be asked of their depth, and the fact that three of their four best players are big men, but the Pelicans are an easy bet to be among the league's most entertaining teams.
New Orleans played faster than anyone last season (101.6 possessions per game), and added nearly three additional possessions per game (104.3) when they played without DeMarcus Cousins. Replacing Boogie with Julius Randle gives the Pelicans a perfect trio of bigs - along with Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic - for the modern game and for Alvin Gentry's up-tempo system. Case in point, the Pels used an astonishing 114.2 possessions per game during their (winless) preseason, the fastest pace in NBA.com's 14-year database of preseason stats.
Throw in Jrue Holiday's two-way excellence at the point, and this team should be fun.
Portland Trail Blazers - Can Dame and CJ silence the doubters ... again?
It's become an annual preseason tradition in the post-Aldridge era to dismiss what the Blazers accomplished in the season prior and project that this is the year the wheels fall off. Then Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum just casually go about their business, both playing 75-plus games while Lillard puts together an All-NBA caliber campaign and McCollum flirts with an All-Star selection, leading the Blazers to roughly 45 wins and another "surprising" playoff berth.
April's embarrassing sweep at the hands of New Orleans was jarring, their offensive regression last season was puzzling, and I'll believe in Jusuf Nurkic's transformation when I see it for a whole year. However, with turmoil in Minnesota and bodies piling up in San Antonio, the consistency and stability of Dame and C.J. make Portland a dependable choice to survive the West's regular-season gauntlet.
San Antonio Spurs - How will they stop anybody?
With Dejounte Murray likely lost for the season, who on this Spurs roster rates as an above-average defender? Jakob Poeltl? Maybe LaMarcus Aldridge? The list ends there, if it even gets that far, and their bigs will be under constant pressure with sieves like DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, and Marco Belinelli left to guard the perimeter.
San Antonio survived last season's turmoil and its uncharacteristically meh offense - 17th-ranked overall, 26th in 3-point shooting - thanks to a fourth-ranked defense. Even for Gregg Popovich, however, what's left of the Spurs this time around won't be able to stop many teams.
Minnesota Timberwolves - Is Andrew Wiggins a good NBA player?
The easy question to ask is when the Timberwolves will finally trade Jimmy Butler - if at all (I'd bump Minny up to 7th or 8th if they keep him) - but the answer to this question is equally important to the franchise's future.
Say what you will about Karl-Anthony Towns' $190-million extension and defensive deficiencies, but Towns is genuinely transcendent on the offensive end. Wiggins, who himself will earn nearly $147 million over the next five years, has yet to prove he has an elite NBA skill. The 23-year-old is still the same inefficient, high-volume scorer and inconsistent defender he was as a rookie. He's failed to develop as a playmaker despite using more than 25 percent of Minnesota's possessions over the last four years, and he's actually regressed when it comes to getting to, and converting at, the free-throw line.
Wolves fans looking to the preseason for promise should avert their eyes, as Wiggins shot 36-29-54 in four games, while somehow managing to dish out just one assist compared to 10 turnovers.
Los Angeles Clippers - What are they playing for in the short term?
Tobias Harris will be looking to prove his worth this season, as will the rest of this Clippers roster. The majority of L.A.'s squad will hit free agency next summer, when the Clips are looking to parlay their cap space into at least one marquee free agent.
The Clippers are loaded with good, but not great, scrappy vets, and that should keep them in most games. But those vets are likely auditioning for rival teams, and L.A. only keeps its 2019 first-round pick if the team misses the playoffs. Add it all up, and the best-case scenario for Clippers fans is a lottery trip, positive signs from rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a clean cap sheet, and a drama-free season that does nothing to dissuade a starry free-agent class.
Dallas Mavericks - How good can Luka Doncic be?
As an 18-year-old, Doncic played a key role in Slovenia's EuroBasket triumph, then led Real Madrid to a Spanish league title and EuroLeague championship. He collected MVP honors in both Spain and Europe, before adding a EuroLeague Final Four MVP award for good measure.
As a 19-year-old, Doncic's first taste of NBA ball saw him post preseason averages of 15 points, five rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.3 blocks on 47.5 percent shooting from the field and 43.4 percent from deep, while providing a mixtape's worth of spectacular plays.
The Mavs don't need Doncic to emerge as an immediate star, but if he proves to be the pick-and-roll maestro he's already capable of, that's a fascinating weapon to utilize in tandem with DeAndre Jordan's rim running, particularly with Dennis Smith Jr. moving to an advantageous position off-ball. Those developments should make life easier for Harrison Barnes, and with Dirk Nowitzki splashing one-legged fadeaways into his fifties, Rick Carlisle suddenly has a lot more talent to work his magic with.
Memphis Grizzlies - Are the healthy Grizzlies good enough anymore?
Conley's return should make them at least semi-competitive most nights, Chandler Parsons, if nothing else, is a darn good shooter when healthy, and rookie forward Jaren Jackson Jr. brings reason for optimism. However, Gasol will be 34 in January, and this team just doesn't have the depth or defensive weapons it used to have. The Grizzlies won't lose 60 games again, but even at full strength, it's tough to see them grit-and-grinding their way back into the playoff mix.
Phoenix Suns - Will they get anywhere near enough production at PG?
Perhaps the Suns will start Devin Booker at the point after his playmaking and assist rates finally popped last season, but it's worth noting that he's spent just two percent of his career minutes - and five percent of his minutes last season - playing point guard, according to Basketball Reference. It's also worth noting that Phoenix started names like Shaquille Harrison, Elie Okobo, and Isaiah Canaan at the one during the preseason, and that they were the only team to play at a slower pace during the preseason than they did last regular season.
Between Booker, rookie big man Deandre Ayton, and incoming vets like Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, the Suns should be more competitive this year, but they're going to need to find a legitimate NBA point guard at some point, unless they think Jamal Crawford can fill that role (he can't).
Deciding on a full-time GM - after firing Ryan McDonough a week before the season - would probably help.
Sacramento Kings - Are fans prepared for things to get worse?
I know what you're thinking - how can things possibly get worse for those poor, tormented fans in Sacramento, where the Kings haven't made the playoffs since 2006 and haven't even cracked the 34-win barrier in a decade?
Well, because the Kings, who will almost certainly be among the league's worst teams again and who have yet to prove they've found a foundational young star, don't own their 2019 first-round pick. They traded it to Philadelphia (who eventually flipped it to Boston after putting top-pick protection on it as part of their swap rights agreement) as a reward for the 76ers taking on the contracts of Nik Stauskas, Carl Landry, and Jason Thompson during the summer of 2015 ... so that the Kings could clear enough cap space to sign Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Luc Mbah a Moute, Kosta Koufos, and Caron Butler.
You literally can't even tell Kings fans that there's nowhere to go but up, because clearly there's a deeper layer of hell awaiting.