NBA Primetime: The Noob's Guide to the 2017 NBA Season

Can the Cleveland Cavaliers repeat as champs this upcoming season? AP (file photo)
By Dugout Philippines

NEW season, new potential headlines.

The NBA kicks off the 2017 season next week, and a lot are already in store. For those who are new to the league, here are what to expect this season.

Warriors vs. Cavaliers, Volume III?: The NBA has never had the same teams meet in three consecutive Finals. The Warriors and Cavaliers could become the first, now that they’ve split the last two championship series and delivered one of the most compelling games in NBA history to close the 2015-16 season. Golden State, fresh off a league-record 73-9 season, has added 2013-14 MVP winner Kevin Durant alongside two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry, making the Warriors the first team ever with two MVP winners under 30. Cleveland has brought back the core of the franchise’s first title team.

Old Faces in New Places: Kevin Durant wasn’t the only star player to switch teams in the offseason. The Knicks made a splash by acquiring longtime Bulls teammates in former MVP Derrick Rose and ex-Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. The Bulls remade their backcourt with the addition of 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade and four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo. Chicago’s retooling also included the departure of six-time All-Star Pau Gasol, who signed with the Spurs. Among the other big men on the move were eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard (who left Houston for Atlanta) and four-time All-Star Al Horford (who joined Boston from the Hawks).

International Rookies: A record 26 international players were selected in the 2016 draft. The headliner is the No. 1 pick, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons (Australia), who will miss the start of the season with a foot injury. The list also includes Phoenix’s Dragan Bender (Croatia), New Orleans’ Buddy Hield (Bahamas), Denver’s Jamal Murray (Canada), Toronto’s Jakob Poeltl (Austria) and Milwaukee’s Thon Maker (South Sudan). Also, the Sixers have two highly touted players drafted in 2014 who are making their NBA debuts this season: Joel Embiid of Cameroon and Dario Saric of Croatia.

Sideline Shuffle: Twelve teams have a different head coach than they did at the start of last season. That list includes three first-time head coaches: Kenny Atkinson of Brooklyn, David Fizdale of Memphis and Luke Walton of the Lakers. Walton served as the Warriors’ interim head coach for the first half of last season, guiding the team to a 39-4 record during head coach Steve Kerr’s health-related absence.

East Intrigue: Last season, the Nos. 3-10 teams in the Eastern Conference – playoff clubs Miami, Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Indiana and Detroit, as well as Chicago and Washington – all won 41 to 48 games, finishing behind Cleveland (57-25) and Toronto (56-26). Whether any of those teams can break out of the pack bears watching. Among the particularly intriguing teams from the list are the Celtics, who added All-Star big man Al Horford to a deep, tenacious group; the Pacers, who landed solid veterans Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson and installed Nate McMillan as their new head coach; and the Pistons, who jumped from 32 to 44 wins last season.

State of Play: The three-pointer has never been a bigger part of the game, with attempts up about 50% in a decade. Pace of play has increased in each of the last four seasons, and last season the league played at its fastest pace in at least two decades. The trend is clear: More teams are playing a “pace-and-space” style that puts additional guards on the floor and increases the value of big men who can defend the perimeter.

Wonderful Westbrook: It’s a testament to Russell Westbrook’s prodigious talent that after notching 18 triple-doubles in 2015-16 and joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 23 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds for a season, many feel the two-time reigning All-Star Game MVP still has another level to reach. He’ll begin the climb without Kevin Durant, his teammate the last eight seasons, and with a supporting cast that features several new faces, including veterans Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova and rookies Domantas Sabonis and Alex Abrines.

Star in the Making: Looking for the NBA’s next superstar? A good place to start is in Milwaukee, where Giannis Antetokounmpo is poised for a huge fourth season. The versatile 21-year-old from Greece posted five triple-doubles over a 20-game span late last season, when he blossomed as a 6-11 point forward. The Bucks haven’t had an All-Star since Michael Redd in 2003-04, but Antetokounmpo looks ready to make the leap.

Smooth Jazz: Among Western Conference teams that missed the playoffs last season, Utah might be the best bet to crack the top eight this season (and make the postseason for the first time since 2012), even with Gordon Hayward sidelined to start the season. The Jazz has improved methodically – from 25 wins in 2013-14 to 38 wins in ’14-15 to 40 wins in ’15-16 – and now tries to take the next step after adding Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw to a young core of Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Dante Exum (who is returning from ACL surgery). Utah plays elite defense under Quin Snyder and has a variety of offensive weapons.

Minnesota Nice: The Timberwolves are a popular choice for breakout team of 2016-17. Minnesota features the last two Rookies of the Year (Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns), the 2016 draft class’ pick for 2016-17 ROY (Kris Dunn) and several other young, emerging players. Under new coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves will look to jump from 29 wins last season to the thick of the playoff hunt this season. Minnesota has gone 12 seasons without a postseason berth, the NBA’s longest active streak.

Young Hollywood: For the first time in two decades the Lakers won’t have Kobe Bryant in the lineup. Instead, the focus will be on developing their cache of young players: guards D’Angelo Russell, 20, and Jordan Clarkson, 24; and forwards Brandon Ingram, 19, Julius Randle, 21, and Larry Nance Jr., 23. Overseeing the youth movement is the NBA’s youngest head coach, 36-year-old new hire Luke Walton.

Magic Potion: Orlando may not begin the season with the most international players on an NBA roster, but perhaps no team will rely as much on them for its regular rotation. The Magic’s offseason overhaul included the addition of defensive-minded big men Serge Ibaka of the Congo and Bismack Biyombo of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They join a third international big man, Nikola Vucevic of Montenegro, plus swingmen Evan Fournier of France and Mario Hezonja of Croatia. The five players from five countries are expected to either start or play big roles under new coach Frank Vogel.

Transfer of Power: Tim Duncan’s steady leadership defined the Spurs for two decades. His retirement has cleared the way for another stolid presence, Kawhi Leonard, to become the face of the franchise. Leonard is already a star – the forward has won two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards, earned 2015-16 All-NBA First Team honors and was last season’s MVP runner-up – but he has even more room to grow on the court and as a force in the locker room.

1990s Club: The NBA lost three legends – Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett – to retirement in the offseason. Those farewells made an exclusive club even smaller: the number of active players drafted in the 1990s. That list – subject to change with preseason roster moves – is tentatively down to seven players: Philadelphia’s Elton Brand, Memphis’ Vince Carter, San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili, Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, the Clippers’ Paul Pierce, Milwaukee’s Jason Terry and the Lakers’ Metta World Peace.

Second Helping: The 2015 rookie class is poised to produce a possible All-Star or two as well as some breakout players. Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, the unanimous Rookie of the Year, is already approaching superstar status, while New York’s Kristaps Porzingis and Phoenix’s Devin Booker have shown similar potential. The top point guards taken in the 2015 draft – the Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell and Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay – both surged late last season and should hit the ground running this season. Add the likes of Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor, Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Indiana’s Myles Turner and Miami’s Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, and there’s plenty to like. 

Upcoming Milestones:

o Cleveland’s LeBron James (26,833) needs 114 points to pass Hakeem Olajuwon for 10th place all time. If James has his typical year, he would pass Shaquille O’Neal (28,596) for seventh place late in the season.

o Dirk Nowitzki, the NBA’s active scoring leader at No. 6 all time, is set for his 19th season with Dallas. The only player with more seasons with one team is Kobe Bryant (20 with the Lakers). Nowitzki is tied for second with Tim Duncan (19 with the Spurs) and John Stockton (19 with the Jazz).

o San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich (1,089) is 11 wins from becoming the seventh coach with 1,100.

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