Empire of the Suns NBA preview: Big questions, award and Finals picks

Oct 16, 2018, 6:22 AM | Updated: Oct 17, 2018, 8:05 am

(AP photos)...

(AP photos)

(AP photos)

After running through the big questions about the Phoenix Suns, Empire of the Suns looks league-wide at some of the biggest questions.

That, and some playoffs and award picks as well.

LeBron in LA … expectations? Predictions?

Kellan Olson: It’s extremely fascinating, that’s for sure. No one is sure if this team has enough offense, defense or shooting, but it has the most amount of young talent and athleticism of any LeBron James team. James has said for the eighth straight preseason he wants to play fast, and if this team actually does, oh my goodness, hit the deck.

Brandon Ingram is already good and could be really good this year. James and Ingram are enough primary offensive to help point guard Lonzo Ball slip right into the supporting role he will be best in. My long-awaited slumber on the Josh Hart train has been rudely interrupted by all these new arrivals. Kyle Kuzma helps with shooting and offense.

It’s on the other veterans they added, and I am incredibly skeptical. But, I believe Luke Walton will ride the young guys and James’ greatness will bump them a few levels higher than they should be. So what I’m saying is, on paper, this is a bubble playoff team, but the GOAT gets you an easy six seed.

Kevn Zimmerman: Betting against LeBron James seems like a very bad play. And it’s true that there’s a lot of skill on this team from top to bottom.

Will the Lakers be super fun to watch? Yes. Will there be drama? Of course. There are plenty of characters in Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee to expect amazing stories this year. Those guys also bring a lot of unique offensive talent to put next to James, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball.

The questions start pouring in when it comes to how this team looks on the defensive end, because for a team that wants to speed the game up, getting stops is going to make or break them. The frontcourt will be the biggest worry with only McGee acting as a true rim protector. James might relegate a lot of ball handling duties to his teammates for once, giving him a better opportunity to use some of his energy on the defensive end.

Los Angeles has the tools to make a push, but it feels like it’ll need a full season to develop as a defensive team and determine how to fit those tools together. And I think that will limit a playoff run to a first-round bounce as a bottom-four seed.

What’s your read on the Eastern Conference? Who comes out?

KO: To cheat ahead on our most interesting players to watch, I’m keeping an eye on the two players at the top to dictate this race.

In Toronto, how does Kyle Lowry vibe with Kawhi Leonard, and does a departure from DeMar DeRozan mean his playoff yips are gone? Is Gordon Hayward elevated by a stellar level of talent around him in Boston and how much did the injury affect him? How much better can Ben Simmons be after a stellar rookie season for the 76ers? Is Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton ready to be the Robin to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Batman?

To me, the consistency of depth and high-level players for Toronto and Boston puts them way ahead of the other two teams. I think Markelle Fultz swings Philadelphia’s season one way or another, but I worry about the health of Joel Embiid and their depth signings were suspect. My bold prediction is Antetokounmpo becomes a bonafide top-three player on the planet this season and wins MVP while leading the Bucks to an Eastern Conference Finals trip. But he doesn’t have enough help to take down Boston. Yet.

KZ: Before getting to the Celtics, let’s talk their challengers.

Is it risky to believe in the Toronto Raptors after they swapped DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green? There’s much to be learned about what first-year coach Nick Nurse can do, but the Raps just have too many dudes to not believe they’ll be a force in a weak conference. They’re long, switchable, athletic and multifaceted.

I get that Philadelphia has some of the best talent in the league with Embiid and Simmons, but the weight those two must carry could end up with one of them injured, and that probably won’t end well. And I get that Antetokounmpo is a top-three talent, but I don’t buy the crew around him, even with a solid head coaching hire in Mike Budenholzer.

Meanwhile, Boston might have growing pains trying to find playing time for all its wings and guards. But yeah, I think the Celtics will get it together enough in the postseason to head to the NBA Finals.

Give us a few individual players you are the most interested in watching.

KO: I’m watching how much the best young players of last year improve. Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown, Devin Booker, Ben Simmons etc. All of them are on a current path to stardom, but how many stay on that path or even elevate their standing on it after this season?

Because of what I said about Fultz in my last answer, he has to be here too. He has the ability to average 15-5-5 from the jump, but how can you not be concerned based on, well, the entire fact that he forgot how to shoot a basketball.

Oh, and my love for this draft class didn’t fade. I’m pumped to watch the likes of Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young and Luka Doncic adjust and adapt.

KZ: Let’s get weird.

— DeMarcus Cousins: Achilles injuries typically mark the downturn of careers. Throw in how much he would be utilized with a Golden State team that has the most success without using bigs, and I’m not certain his signing was worth getting up in arms about.

— Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner: The Pacers are in the tier below the four Eastern Conference favorites we touched on above, but how much more room for growth do these two have?

— Blake Griffin: Detroit just might be a mess trying to play with Griffin and Andre Drummond in this era of basketball. One of the most unique NBA players might continue to lose relevancy in a small market.

— Luka Doncic: The narrative between he and Deandre Ayton isn’t going to die this year or maybe ever. And I’m all for it.

— Tobias Harris: I feel like he regularly goes under the radar yet is one of the best forwards in the league.

Who is the second best team in the Western Conference?

KO: I think everyone is sleeping on the Denver Nuggets.

As ESPN’s Zach Lowe has pointed out in multiple spaces this offseason, center Nikola Jokic took a leap at the end of the season in the team’s playoff push. From February onward in the last 31 games of the season, Jokic averaged 21.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 7.2 assists a game. Oh, and he shot 47.9 percent (!!) from three-point range on 3.9 attempts (!!!!) a night.

Jokic is not a good defender, but he’s a star and has a terrific frontcourt partner in Paul Millsap to provide enough positives defending to offset Jokic’s negatives.

Jamal Murray has been flirting with “The Leap” for a while now, and year three could be it for him. Gary Harris is really, really good and Will Barton is rock-solid at what he does. Isaiah Thomas is more offense off the bench and they have a handful of “actually, he’s pretty decent” role players in Torrey Craig, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez. Mike Malone is a good coach and I think that plus Jokic’s rise land them number two.

KZ: Reserving space for the Houston Rockets to show they’re still really good if their starters stay healthy and play heavy D’Antoni-levied minutes, the Jazz have to be atop the conversation. They’ve got bigs, they’ve got smalls, they’ve got offense and defense. I suppose the same could be said about the Nuggets, but there’s more proof in the pudding with Utah.

As for those Rockets, well, that bench unit looks frighteningly not good.

But the Spurs are definitely going to be the second-best team without Dejounte Murray for the year, aren’t they?

As a basketball nerd, which team are you the most excited to watch that is a bit off the radar?

KO: There are young partnerships I’m gonna be locked in all year. I’m going to be a homer and put the Suns here. Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker are worth watching every night, as is their chemistry developing over the course of their first full year together. In Dallas, Luka Doncic could maximize Dennis Smith Jr., and seeing how Doncic does “all the little things” while battling creation struggles — that he could even prove to overcome anyway — is the make-or-break of his potential.

How about a full healthy year for Jonathan Isaac in Orlando alongside a recently paid Aaron Gordon? Is this finally the year for Kris Dunn in Chicago, and is Zach LaVine actually good? Will the Nets’ Caris LeVert ascend from someone everyone on NBA Twitter loves to a legitimately great player alongside sneaky good young big Jarrett Allen? How does Shai Gilgeous-Alexander work with the 348 guards the Clippers have, including the reached-on Jerome Robinson? Yup, I’m definitely a basketball nerd.

KZ: If we’re talking teams that aren’t expected to do well, I am very curious about the Knicks. They’ve got a unique collection of talent with rookies Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson in the fray. Haven’t a clue as to how first-year coach David Fizdale will work in guards Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay, or if those guys’ upsides are closer to tapping out than we initially thought, but there’s at least a draw. Kristaps Porzingis needs to return before the masses will give any hoot about New York, though.

Of teams we’ve not touched on yet, there are a lot of teams that stood pat that might get close to blowing things up with bad starts to the year. The Wizards didn’t do much but swap Marcin Gortat for Dwight Howard in a very Wizards move, the Grizzlies welcome back healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol after an awful season, while Portland and Oklahoma City must prove staying the course will lead to improvement.


West playoff teams

KO: Warriors, Nuggets, Jazz, Rockets, Thunder, Lakers, Trail Blazers, Spurs

KZ: (Same, but different order) Warriors, Jazz, Rockets, Nuggets, Thunder, Spurs, Lakers, Trail Blazers

East playoff teams

KO: Celtics, Raptors, Bucks, Pacers, 76ers, Heat, Wizards, Hornets

KZ: Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, Bucks, Pacers, Wizards, Heat, Pistons

WCF, ECF and Finals

KO: Warriors over Nuggets in 5; Celtics over Bucks in 6; Warriors over Celtics in 5

KZ: Warriors over Jazz in 4; Celtics over Raptors in 7; Warriors over Celtics in 5


KO: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

KZ: LeBron James, Lakers (The answer should always be LeBron James)

Rookie of the Year

KO: Deandre Ayton, Suns (STATS!)

KZ: Deandre Ayton, Suns

Defensive Player of the Year

KO: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

KZ: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Coach of the Year

KO: Mike Malone, Nuggets

KZ: Quin Snyder, Jazz


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