With less than two months until the start of the NBA regular season, it's worth taking a moment to step back and evaluate the league. While much has changed this summer, some of the league's most important questions are still left to be answered.
Will the Rockets pursue another wing?
The Rockets forged a defensive identity around switchable, versatile defenders last season. That philosophy worked and Houston became one of the best defensive teams in the league. They finished the regular season with the sixth-best defensive rating and came just a game short of making the NBA Finals.
This offseason, that identity took a hit. Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, two players vital to Houston's defensive success, left in free agency. The Rockets filled those roles with James Ennis, who fits the system, and Carmelo Anthony, who does not.
Ennis is a solid, reliable defender who will earn plenty of minutes if he can at least maintain his career average of 36.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s. If Anthony rediscovers his offensive efficiency, his scoring ability should supersede any defensive shortcomings. If neither player works out, the Rockets will have to look elsewhere if they want to compete with the Warriors.
Houston's payroll of $136.5 million puts them firmly in the luxury tax, but they will still have opportunities to add talent during the season via trade or buyout. Finding the right collection of players to replace Ariza and Mbah a Moute - whether in the form of Anthony, Ennis or someone else - will determine whether Houston can get back in position to try to knock off the Warriors.
Which teams will try to shed salary?
Every year, whether due to unmet expectations or pressure from ownership to save money, expensive teams become desperate to lower their payroll. Just last month, Denver traded Wilson Chandler and a second round pick to the Philadelphia in order to ostensibly get under the luxury tax threshold.
At some point this season, more teams will follow Denver's path. Miami and Washington are two clear candidates in the East. Neither is in a position to truly compete for a title - though a LeBron-less conference may convince them otherwise - and both are in the luxury tax. With Justise Winslow and Kelly Oubre's restricted free agency approaching next summer for the Heat and Wizards respectively, both franchises could look to lower costs now while they can.
Out West, Portland might look to shed salary as well. While the Blazers seemed to be dark horse contenders for much of last season, their first-round sweep at the hands of the Pelicans served as a sobering reality check. Even a successful season in Portland could see the Blazers tumble down the daunting Western Conference standings, and $144.3 million (including tax) is a steep price to pay for a team out of title contention.
|Current Cap Total||Projected Tax Owed||Total Owed|
|Miami||$129.69 million||$9.25 million||$138.94 million|
|Washington||$134.86 million||$19.15 million||$154.01 million|
|Portland||$131.64 million||$12.65 million||$144.29 million|
Who will be willing to take on that money?
As things stand right now, the Kings are the only team far enough below the cap to take on money. The Kings tried to use their room to sign Zach LaVine but the Bulls matched, leaving Sacramento with just over $11 million in space after signing Nemanja Bjelica and Yogi Ferrell.
As the only team with space, Sacramento holds incredible power over the trade market. Any team looking to dump salary will have to negotiate with the Kings and, with no one to bid against them, Sacramento can leverage that value sky high. For a rebuilding team in need of all the talent they can get, this is the perfect no-risk opportunity for the Kings to gain an asset to put alongside Marvin Bagley, De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield.
Which title contender will be a buyer at the deadline?
Oklahoma City could look to make a splash at the deadline, but their cap situation limits their options. OKC has the highest payroll in the league and the Stepien rule prohibits them from trading any more of their pre-2024 first round picks. With Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, Dennis Schröder and Andre Roberson making up over 77 percent of their total cap, adding talent mid-season will be tough without sacrificing a key player.
In the East, it would make a ton of sense for Philadelphia to go after a big name before the deadline. Even with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons still entering their NBA adolescence, the Sixers are in position to compete for a title now and have the third-lowest total cap in the league.
If Philly takes another step forward this season, they could try to swap a collection of supporting pieces for an established star, even on a rental. The Sixers' bench is loaded with talented veterans on good contracts and promising young prospects who could form a tantalizing trade package. They would be mortgaging some of their future for greater title odds now, but the Sixers are one of the few teams who can legitimately argue they are just a player away from a title.
Which version of Minnesota will we see this season?
Outside of the true contenders, the Timberwolves might be the most compelling team in the league. Before Jimmy Butler's injury last season, Minnesota was one of the best teams in the West and on pace for home-court advantage. After Butler tore his meniscus in February, the Wolves finished the year 11-9, squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the season and fell to the Rockets in five games.
Minnesota has improved this summer, but they've hit some roadblocks as well. Karl-Anthony Towns - the youngest member of any 2018 All-NBA team - is eligible for, but has yet to sign, a rookie extension. The Wolves did offer Butler a $110 million extension, but he turned it down. Butler will have the ability to re-sign in Minnesota for more money next summer so him turning down the extension isn't inherently a reason to panic, but it does fuel the uncertainty.
If things break right for Minnesota, Towns can emerge as one of the best players in the league, Andrew Wiggins can make the much-anticipated jump to stardom and Butler can be the ultimate do-everything glue guy. If things don't go well and Minnesota can't regain their early 2017 form, then they fall out of the playoffs and Butler becomes one of the most sought-after players in the league approaching the deadline.
Minnesota's ability - or inability - to solve the problems they face this season will create ripple effects felt across the league.