1. Will Harden return anywhere close to MVP level?
When the Philadelphia Sixers traded for James Harden before the end of the trade deadline from Brooklyn, the expectations were to get to the Finals for it to be a somewhat successful season. With the season big man Joel Embiid was having, adding Harden, a former MVP to help balance the scoring for this team, looked like the perfect fit. But the question is will Harden get back to the elite form?
The fit seemed perfect early during the regular season, but the Sixers have had regular season success in the past, so they brought Harden over to help this team achieve postseason success. They fell short again, and Harden did not play his best when it was required. He has had postseason struggles before, so he knew the pressure that was on him to play his best.
His performances in both games 5 & 6 in the semifinals against Miami were disappointing as they were closed out in six games on their home floor. He scored 14 points and had the same amount of turnovers (4) as assists in game 5, then followed that up with only scoring 11 points (all in the 1st half), while only attempting two field goals in the second half in 22 minutes. Then Embiid spoke about him after that game 6 loss, “Everybody was expecting Houston James (Harden), but that’s not who he is anymore.”
A lot of people felt second year guard Tyrese Maxey was the second best player for them in that series (20.2 ppg), because he stayed aggressive. Which this team needed, especially with Embiid dealing with the orbital fracture to his face and a sprained thumb on his shooting hand.
Now he will get a chance to have a full offseason with this team heading into the season. The city of Philadelphia is desperate for this Sixers team to get back to the Finals, a place they haven’t been since Allen Iverson took them back in 2001. They are not going to get there with Harden playing like an average guy and saying things like, “We ran our offense and the ball just didn’t get back to me” in a close out playoff game.
If Maxey is going to be the second best player in a playoff series for this team, what did they bring Harden over for?
He has to be better, when it counts the most.
2. New Orleans waiting around for Zion?
The city of New Orleans has not been this excited about their basketball team in years. They have a reason to be excited about their New Orleans Pelicans moving forward because they have a lot of young talent on this roster for the foreseeable future. They got into the playoffs after winning two “Play-In” games (their first appearance since 2018) and took the former Western Conference champions from Phoenix to six games.
They have a young core of talent led by Brandon Ingram, who did not back down in that first round matchup against the team that represented the West in the Finals. Herbert Jones, Trey Murphy III, Jaxson Hayes, and fan favorite Jose Alvado who gained a lot of respect in that playoff series for the disruption he caused Phoenix’s offense. They also have solid veterans that first-year head coach Willie Green could lean on in CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr., who both came over from Portland before the trade deadline.
There’s plenty to look forward to, but the excitement is based around what this team will look like heading into this season with a healthy Zion Williamson returning to the lineup. He’s only played in 85 games since being drafted back in 2019, so the 22 year-old’s health has been the biggest concern for this organization. He is 6’6 284 lbs which is heavy for any player trying to get up and down the floor for 82 games, even for a 22 year-old. His rookie season was cut short because of a knee injury, and his second season was cut short because of a foot injury (fractured right foot) that also kept him out all of last season. With all the injury history, the organization still gave him a 5yr 193M designated maximum rookie extension that could earn him as much as $231 million after the season.
If he makes an All-NBA team, wins MVP, or wins Defensive Player of the Year next season, it could up the total value of the deal to that $231M.
It was a breath of fresh air being that there were rumors that Williamson may not sign the rookie extension, in hopes of going to a larger market, like New York. He was asked about it during the offseason and his response was, “I do want to be here. That’s no secret.”
I’m sure this team would be excited to have him back on the floor and potentially be a part of something special, based on their success last year. The city is behind Williamson and this team, but he has to continue to show the organization, his teammates, and this city that he is dedicated to working hard to get himself back in shape and cutting down things that are a detriment to him becoming the best version of himself.
This team wants a legitimate chance of competing with the top teams out West, and they can’t do that with Williamson in street clothes.
3. Is Durant Going To Be Happy?
Kevin Durant, still recognized as one of the best players in the world, did not have a great finish to the 2022 season for his standards. His Brooklyn Nets didn’t win a game in the first round against their conference rivals in Boston, and it was the first time Durant has been swept in his 14 year career. Yes he averaged 26.3 ppg in that series, but he wasn’t his normal efficient self. Boston’s defense hounded him all series making things difficult for him, probably the best team defense Durant has seen in a playoff series. They held him under 40% from the field and 3-pt, and he had almost as many turnovers (21) as assists (25).
Then the chatter began.
A lot of people are wondering if he can get his third championship without the services of now 4-time champion Steph Curry, and the rest of the Golden State Warriors. Durant was the best player in his three years there, but never felt the same love as others on that team. So he left that great situation to go to a team and try and build his own, but hasn’t manifested itself yet as he hasn’t come near the Finals after going to three straight with the Warriors from 2017-2019.
He then asked to be traded on June 30th because he wasn’t happy with the front office leadership of general manager Sean Marks and head coach Steve Nash, and reportedly said “Them or me.” It’s not out of the realm of players of Durant’s caliber to ask for a trade, but you don’t typically see it with a player that has 4 years remaining on a contract they just signed a year prior. But now according to Marks, “We have agreed to move forward with our partnership. We are focusing on basketball, with one collective goal in mind: build a lasting franchise to bring a championship to Brooklyn.”
This is something they thought they would have moving forward with Durant and Kyrie Irving, now that Irving picked up his $36.5M option this summer for at least one more season in Brooklyn. They’ll have to revisit his contract next summer.
This organization seems to have given Durant a lot of what he’s asked for since he’s got there to try and make this roster better, and he still doesn’t seem to be happy.
4. Brunson Ready to be That Guy?
Fans of the New York Knicks have been clamoring for a superstar to be excited about year-after-year as they enter Madison Square Garden, for 41 home games a year. They seem to have missed out on many superstars looking to go elsewhere whether it was via free agency or trade. New York is supposed to be the mecca of basketball, but nobody seems to want to play there. They seem to point to the reason being owner James Dolan and the way he has handled the historic franchise. Whether it was getting former Knick and fan favorite Charles Oakley removed from MSG after a back-and-forth shouting match back in 2017, or if it was threatening to have a fan banned from MSG back in 2019 because the fan shouted “sell the team Dolan.”
It’s the writing on the wall that Knicks fans are not too fond of Dolan. So now is it up to newly acquired Knick Jalen Brunson to come save this franchise?
The 26 year-old, second round pick back in 2018 out of Villanova, is coming off the best season of his young career playing for Dallas averaging 16.3 ppg and 4.8 ast. The Knicks signed him to a 4yr $104M deal this summer with a player option in the final year. Brunson is the first player in NBA history to sign a $100M contract with a new team without having a single All-Star appearance. He elevated his play in the playoffs averaging 21.6 ppg and scored 30+ on three different occasions. In Dallas, he was a key piece to their Western Conference Final run, but he wasn’t asked to be the guy because that belonged to Luka Doncic.
This franchise has had three playoff appearances in the last decade, and needs someone to help lead this team back to relevance. So will the other players on this roster defer to someone that hasn’t even accomplished what some of the other players have in their careers?
Their most consistent player over the past three seasons Julius Randle has been an All-Star and named All-NBA 2nd team, while averaging 20+ in all three seasons in NY. Third year wing RJ Barret has progressed every year since arriving in NY back in 2019 coming off 20 ppg and nearing a 4yr extension, and former 3x All-Star and former MVP who plays the same position as Brunson, Derrick Rose is a fan favorite and someone coach Tom Thibodeau trust at the end of games to help close. Regardless of the amount of money a player makes, coach Thibodeau will put the best players on the floor to help this team win.
Brunson will have a lot of pressure on him, because if he doesn’t play up to par there are others who may feel they are better and give this NY team the best chance to win. Not the guy who they brought over making $104 million dollars, but wasn’t even the best player on the team he just came from.
5. Dame Stuck with Mediocrity?
After having abdominal surgery in January, guard Damian Lillard suited up for only 29 games for his Portland Trail Blazers team, his fewest since he was drafted back in 2012-2013. He hasn’t played meaningful basketball since New Year’s eve against the Lakers, because the organization decided to shut him down for the rest of the season.
So it was just another wasted season for Lillard, now 32, in his 10th season. They traded away his longtime backcourt teammate in CJ McCollum to New Orleans before the trade deadline, Lillard spent nine of his 10 seasons with McCollum. That leaves Jusuf Nurkic (6 seasons) the longest tenure teammate that Lillard has on this roster.
The organization knows they’ll have Lillard locked in through 2026-27, but will they legitimately be able to contend for a championship in that window? Lillard has helped get this franchise to eight straight playoff appearances(2013-2021) in his 10 seasons, but they have been unable to reach an NBA Finals.
After a 27-55 record last year, and a tough season without their star, first-year head Chauncey Billups leaned on his young talent. They believe they have found something in fourth year guard Anfernee Simons. With the ball in his hands and no Lillard, resulted in career-highs in every major statistical category for Simons. He averaged 17.3 ppg, 2.6 reb, and 3.9 assists last season, on his way to a 4yr $100M deal. Josh Hart, who was acquired in the McCollum trade, averaged 19.9 ppg in the 13 games for Portland. NBA champion Gary Payton II signed this offseason from the Warriors, and they took Shaedon Sharpe the 6’6 guard from Kentucky despite him not playing a single game in college.
They have six other guards on this roster outside of Lillard looking for minutes to try and contribute. They traded for Detroit’s Jerami Grant who averaged 19.2 ppg last season in just 47 games, but will this be enough to help Lillard get Portland to the Finals for the first time since 1992? Because he has spoken about wanting a legitimate chance to win.
“That’s where I’ve always stood, and that’s where I stand,” Lillard said on contending in Portland. “It’s going to get done or it’s not going to get done. I don’t want to go out there with this crazy uphill battle that I’m fighting and we need a miracle times 10 to get it done. I just want a shot at it, and if that happens and it doesn’t work out, then I can live with that.”
Next season looks like another uphill battle.