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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ten burning questions for the 2023-24 NBA season

San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama attempts to block a shot by Charlotte’s Kai Jones during an NBA Summer League game July 7 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ben Golliver Washington Post

The NBA’s 78th season tips off Tuesday with a crowded championship landscape and a cresting wave of hype for rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama. Here are 10 burning questions to ponder in the final days before the Denver Nuggets launch their title defense.

1. How will the Nuggets replace Bruce Brown?

Only three teams have won back-to-back titles over the past 20 years: the Kobe Bryant/Pau Gasol Los Angeles Lakers (2009-10), the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade Miami Heat (2012-13) and the Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors (2017-18).

While the Nuggets don’t have the same depth of top-end talent as those champions, they do have the NBA’s best player in Nikola Jokic, a scintillating sidekick in Jamal Murray and a well-balanced starting lineup that returns intact.

But Denver did lose Brown in free agency, and it must turn to younger alternatives to replace the energizing veteran’s production. Starting forward Michael Porter Jr. can give more on offense, while backup guard Christian Braun, an unlikely hero in the Finals, should enjoy an expanded role. Rookie guard Julian Strawther (Gonzaga) has shot 3-pointers well during the preseason, but Denver must determine whether it needs to add another proven piece before the trade deadline to survive another postseason odyssey.

2. Who won the Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday trades?

The Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns – three leading challengers to the Nuggets – fundamentally altered their teams just days before training camps opened. Such late-breaking trades are rare in the NBA, and much of the early-season discourse will surround these big bets. How are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lillard meshing in Milwaukee? Does Holiday look like the perfect Marcus Smart replacement for Boston? Will Phoenix’s defense hold up without Deandre Ayton?

The Lillard and Holiday deals will be of particular importance because they could pay off with an Eastern Conference finals showdown, and how Milwaukee and Boston replace what they lost in their trades could determine which team got the upper hand. The Bucks must scrounge up some reliable perimeter defenders in Holiday’s absence, while the Celtics will lean heavily on newcomer Kristaps Porzingis after losing Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams III and Grant Williams this summer.

3. Can Victor Wembanyama make an immediate impact?

Conventional wisdom holds that even highly touted rookies are destined for tough sledding: James, Durant, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson combined for zero playoff games in their first NBA seasons, and Sacramento Kings forward Keegan Murray was the only rookie to start in the 2023 postseason.

The 19-year-old Wembanyama arrives in San Antonio as a savior for a franchise that is projected by oddsmakers to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season. The 7-foot-4 Frenchman has the size and length to be a transformational player for a defense that ranked 30th last season, and he has enough scoring acumen to step in immediately as a lead option. Thanks to the advent of the play-in tournament format, which expanded the postseason field to 10 teams in each conference, Wembanyama could have the Spurs playing meaningful basketball well after the All-Star break.

4. Will Anthony Davis take the torch from LeBron James?

It feels a bit uncouth to highlight the negatives when James spent his 20th season becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, leading an improbable run to the Western Conference finals and averaging 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Let’s also remember that the four-time MVP floated retirement talk in May and absolutely no one believed him because he was still playing at such a high level.

Even so, James showed clear signs of aging: His 3-point percentage plummeted, he got to the rim and free-throw line less frequently, and injuries cost him a decent chunk of the season for the fourth time in five years. In the playoffs, he settled for picking and choosing his spots rather than shifting into takeover mode like he did during Los Angeles’s 2020 title run. For the deep and talented Lakers to win another ring, the 30-year-old Davis must pick up the slack as a defensive player of the year candidate and the team’s leading scorer. Father Time demands it.

5. Will the new-look regular season feel different?

The NBA has expended enormous time and energy over the past 12 months crafting a plan to reinvigorate its 82-game regular season, which includes adding an in-season tournament, cracking down on load management, requiring end-of-season awards candidates to play in at least 65 games and issuing technical fouls for flopping. As the league negotiates its new media rights deals, commissioner Adam Silver clearly wants to raise the competitiveness level and quality of play.

Good intentions and thoughtful self-assessments don’t always lead to perfect results. If superstars continue to miss nationally televised games with phantom injuries or if the in-season tournament’s knockout-round games don’t feel as if they have extra stakes, the NBA will be staring at the same old critiques.

6. Can the Suns turn offseason activity into real results?New Suns owner Mat Ishbia hails from the mortgage industry, but he has employed a “Move fast and break things” ethos that would make Silicon Valley proud. In his first year on the job, Ishbia parted ways with coach Monty Williams, Chris Paul, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne, and that’s not even an exhaustive list. Phoenix has also acquired two stars in Durant and Bradley Beal, hired Frank Vogel as coach and overhauled its supporting cast by adding Jusuf Nurkic, Eric Gordon, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Yuta Watanabe, among others. Remarkably, the Suns made all these changes even though they were the only team to push the Nuggets to six games in the playoffs last season.

So, will Ishbia’s quick trigger be a blessing or a curse? Phoenix should have one of the NBA’s most electric offenses thanks to Durant, Devin Booker and Beal, but that trio has some overlap in skill set and must function without a traditional point guard. Meanwhile, the Suns’ defensive identity was decimated, forcing Vogel to get by with a thin front line. Health looms as the obvious deciding factor: Durant, Booker, Beal and Nurkic averaged 51 games played last season, and it will take far better availability than that for Phoenix to jell into a legitimate contender.

7. Will Ja Morant’s suspension halt the Grizzlies’ progress?

The Grizzlies have had months to lick their wounds after a humbling playoff loss to the Lakers, which featured Dillon Brooks’ ill-advised trash talk and lingering chatter about Morant’s first gun-related suspension. Memphis didn’t take long hitting reset by moving on from Brooks and acquiring a new defensive stopper in Smart. Though the Grizzlies remain incredibly deep and talented on paper thanks to a young core composed of Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, their quest for redemption is on hold until their franchise guard completes his second gun-related suspension.

Morant, 24, will be sidelined for 25 games and won’t be eligible to play until shortly before Christmas. Memphis will turn to Smart and Derrick Rose after trading longtime backup point guard Tyus Jones this summer, and it will lean on Jackson and center Steven Adams to forge a defense-first identity. One year ago, the up-and-coming Grizzlies seemed destined to be a future Western Conference powerhouse. Now, they must hold down the fort for months and hope that Morant can author a comeback story so convincing that it gets the entire franchise back on track.

8. How will Chris Paul fit with the Warriors?

The good news: The Warriors aren’t dealing with any teammate-on-teammate violence controversies such as Draymond Green’s 2022 punch of Jordan Poole. The bad news: Green’s recent ankle injury prevented Golden State from fully exploring its starting lineup options during the preseason. Once Green returns, coach Steve Kerr will face a tough choice in juggling what he has called his “six starters”: He can return to last year’s starting lineup by demoting Paul, or go smaller by starting Paul and sending either Green or center Kevon Looney to the bench.

This really should be an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation. The Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Green and Looney starting lineup won the 2022 title and posted a blistering plus-21.9 net rating in 331 minutes together last season. That said, the 38-year-old Paul, who arrived in an offseason trade for Poole, is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who has started all 1,214 games in his 18-year career. While Kerr has mostly shown deference to Paul, Golden State must ask whether a reduced regular-season role would help the 12-time All-Star guard hold up better against playoff competition.

9. What’s up with James Harden?

Just like Durant’s trade request engulfed the Brooklyn Nets last fall, Harden’s unhappiness has become the leading early-season story for the Philadelphia 76ers. Harden initially threatened to “never be a part of an organization” that employed 76ers President Daryl Morey because of bad blood over contract negotiations and his summer trade request, but he eventually joined the team at training camp after skipping media day. His presence proved to be temporary: Harden left the team and skipped practice this week, never appeared in a preseason game and told reporters that he “wanted to retire a Sixer” but the “front office didn’t have that in their future plans.”

The Los Angeles Clippers have been linked to interest in Harden, and they could use an all-star-caliber lead guard who would reduce their dependence on Russell Westbrook and provide reliable production when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George inevitably miss time because of injury. Unfortunately for Harden, the recent Lillard and Holiday trades set a high bar when it comes to what Morey will want in a return package, and the Clippers are light on quality future draft picks. If Harden eventually gets his wish, all eyes will turn to Joel Embiid. How would the reigning MVP cope with losing another star sidekick so quickly after Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo and Boston’s Tatum enjoyed big-time talent infusions?

10. Are the Wizards in line for the No. 1 pick?

After coming up one draft lottery ping-pong ball short of landing Wembanyama, Washington overhauled its front office, traded Beal and bit the bullet on a full-scale rebuilding effort. Oddsmakers expect the Wizards, led now by Poole and Kyle Kuzma, to win roughly 24 games, which would be the franchise’s worst season since 2011-12. That year, Washington selected Beal with the No. 3 pick and teamed him with 2010 No. 1 pick John Wall to open a relatively successful era that produced playoff series victories in 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Clearly, the Wizards are in desperate need of franchise players to replace Wall and Beal. If they finish this season with one of the league’s three worst records, they will have a 14% chance at the No. 1 pick and a 40.1% chance of landing in the top three. Though this year’s class lacks a Wembanyama-like headliner, prospects such as Ron Holland and Matas Buzelis of the G League Ignite have more long-term potential than anyone on Washington’s current roster. It’s not too early for Wizards fans to start scouting on YouTube.