Professional basketball might not have the same historic connection to guy culture that the NFL enjoys. As Bill Simmons said in a recent podcast at The Ringer, the NFL is essentially the new American pastime (sorry baseball – I still love you). But basketball is coming on pretty strong. The NBA has surged in popularity, and probably has the most recognizable athletes on the planet. The NBA now gives us something to talk about all year, something to watch while Christmas feasts are cooking, and all kinds of awesome drama to focus on in the spring lull, when neither football nor baseball is around.
Back in July, we took a look at the beginning of NFL training camp, and discussed a few teams that were particularly intriguing because of the arrival of new players. Now, with the NBA preseason about to get started, I’ll do the same with five professional basketball teams.
There’s really no writing this article without first stopping in Boston, where Danny Ainge – the king of “assets” – has finally assembled what might be a new super team. I’m not sure there’s anyone on this Celtics team who will scream at us that “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE” and bash his forehead against the padded support for the basket before games. But aside from those pesky details, there are some similarities between this and the Celtics of the last-2000s. There are three star players – Al Horford and new additions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – to be complemented by youth (Jaylen Brown and the newly drafted Jayson Tatum) the same way Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce had Rajon Rondo to help them out. Plus, there are people out there who think Ainge still has enough of his precious assets to make a deal for someone like Anthony Davis. We’ll see.
Raise your hand if you’re tired of hearing about 76ers rookies? Well, mine’s up anyway. Dario Sarich was drafted and stashed overseas; Joel Embiid was drafted hurt and has hardly been able to stay on the court for several seasons now, despite his ludicrous talent; Ben Simmons was drafted last year and didn’t play a minute. Well, they may all be active this season (though questions remain about Embiid), and the Sixers have added – you guessed it – ANOTHER number one pick. Markelle Fultz played for a woeful Washington team and spent some time injured himself, so he’s actually relatively unknown to fans. Some see him as a natural scorer in the vein of Damian Lillard. A pre-draft write-up citing him as a number one pick certainty called him an extremely reliable and dedicated defender. Others have simply spent time debating about whether he’s a po
int or shooting guard. There’s really no telling what he is until we see him on an NBA court, but this team, with all of that youth plus the addition of sharpshooter JJ Redick, will be pretty interesting to watch.
Oklahoma City Thunder
This is my pick for the most interesting team in basketball this year. Russell Westbrook is coming off a season in which he averaged a triple-double (and somehow people thought his winning MVP was controversial). But it’s general manager Sam Presti who’s the true superstar here. Somehow Presti stepped in at the last second on not one but two transactions involving star players disgruntled with their situations. Giving up nothing better than Victor Oladipo, Presti managed to rope in Paul George AND Carmelo Anthony to play alongside Westbrook (and also drafted a kid from Australia who’s supposed to be the real deal). Will they all be able to play together? Is George just stopping by en route to Los Angeles next summer? Can Billy Donovan coach professionals? I DON’T KNOW, but THAT is why this team is wildly exciting.
You could be forgiven for not caring much about the Minnesota Timberwolves. You know what? I don’t care much about the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not in general. I think Tom Thibodeau probably deserves more criticism than he got for arriving with the reputation of a stellar defensive coach and doing absolutely nothing with a point guard valued largely for defensive ability (Kris Dunn) and a supremely athletic young would-be star (Andrew Wiggins). Maybe now we’re about to find out that it wasn’t Thibs, but his players that made the Chicago Bulls’ defense so stingy for a few years. That’s because Jimmy Butler is back with his one-time Chicago coach, having been traded to Minnesota this offseason. The team also got rid of Ricky Rubio and brought in Jeff Teague to play point. There may be some growing pains, but this team has the juice to compete in the Western Conference.
Yeah, I’m sorry. I don’t really want to talk about the Cavaliers anymore either. But hey, they traded Kyrie Irving away for Isaiah Thomas (who’s out hurt until January) and Jae Crowder, and then they brought in Dwyane Wade to reunite the Super Friends. This looks a lot like a team full of guys who used to be awesome – Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, and perhaps Jae Crowder – plus LeBron James. There’s a chance James can make that work. But there’s also a chance this is a total disaster in everything from basketball tactics to chemistry, and that the 2017-18 season in Cleveland is basically a sad farewell tour for a LeBron James on his way to LA.
That will do for now. This was a pretty insane NBA offseason, so there are more changes to talk about. But these are the teams that went through the most, and which could look totally difference once the season tips off.