NBA 2016 - 2017: Three Burning Questions

A figurative line of Brinks armored trucks pulled up to the NBA this summer, unloading piles of cash in the form a new national TV rights deal and other revenue increases. As a result, the league's salary cap had its largest windfall in history, increasing by $24 million to $94 million. This created the ultimate seller's market, one in which two thirds of the league had the space to dangle at least one maximum-salary contract in front of a limited free agent pool.

The result? Chaos. By the time the dust settled, teams had committed a combined $3.9 billion to free agents and a few additional players, with over $1.7 billion dollars spoken for on the first day alone. Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard shifted the league's balance of power, leaving teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder sifting through the rubble of what had once been. League fixtures Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant said their goodbyes, the former riding off into the sunset while leaving his team in good shape for the future, and the latter going out with a bang (60 legendary points in his final game) but leaving a franchise with a trail of question marks (and questionable snapchat decisions) in his wake.

It was an offseason like no other. As we approach tip off for the 2016-17 season, burning questions abound, here are the top 3:

1. Can anyone stop the Warriors?
In an offseason filled with headlines, the biggest headline of all was Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder to join Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors forming a super team the likes of which has never been seen. It almost seems unfair -- a team that won a league-record 73 regular season games, and nearly won back-to-back titles, added a bona fide superstar without giving up any of its core, or really even hurting its depth.

But don't expect another run at the regular season record books, even with the addition of Durant. Chasing 73 wins took a lot out of the team, and probably affected them in the playoffs -- Steph Curry certainly wasn't himself by the time the Finals got underway. Look for the Warriors to start 2016-17 more slowly as the players get used to each other and head coach Steve Kerr takes advantage of his ability to keep his stars' minutes down.

But the playoffs will be another story. Adding Durant's inside play to Curry's and Klay Thompson's knock-down three point shooting means that nobody will be able to match up with them. And the Warriors also got better on the defensive end with Durant guarding the three spot. In all likelihood, this team should win the title convincingly.

2. What's in store for OKC?
Isaac Newton showed that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Kevin Durant moving to Golden State leaves the Oklahoma City Thunder picking up the pieces. The loss of Durant certainly means the team is now out of contention -- and this is a team that might have won multiple titles had it not been for some key injuries. At the end of the day, it’s do or die for Russ Westbrook, as the spotlight shifts solely to him.

Still, it's not a total loss in OKC -- the Thunder is still a pretty good team. On draft night they traded Serge Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to Donatas Sabonis -- a move that would have helped the Thunder if Durant had stayed, and helps fill the void now that Durant is gone. Stephen Adams is coming into his own in the middle, and will form an effective pick-and-roll combination with Russell Westbrook. The Thunder also renegotiated and extended Westbook's contract, cementing him as their franchise player for the next four seasons. The team's strategy would have changed dramatically had Westbrook wanted out.

But shooting and spacing will be issues for this team, and there will be nightly struggles to generate points. The bottom line is that when you lose a superstar, you will struggle as a result, and the Thunder certainly are no exception. Look for them to win 40 to 45 games next year, with a low seed in the Western Conference playoffs being their best-case scenario.

3. When will the Lakers be good again?
As storied a franchise as they are, the Lakers are used to being perennial title contenders, signing the best free agents, and addressing problems by throwing money at them. Boy has that changed. They have now missed the playoffs for three straight seasons, during which time they've consistently struck out on the top free agents -- Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, among others. But good or bad, people will continue to pay attention to the Lakers – because they’re the Lakers.

The team has been caught between a rock and a hard place. They gave Kobe Bryant a two-year extension, guaranteeing he would remain the league's highest-paid player for the final seasons of his career, and handcuffing the team’s ability to improve through trades and free agency. But they couldn't not re-sign the guy who has been the face of their franchise for two decades, either. And even they admitted that 2015-16 was more about Kobe's farewell than developing their young talent. But Bryant wasn't their only problem. They had a coach in Byron Scott who was out of touch with the modern league; they made some low-value signings with guys like Nick Young; and they let some productive and affordable players like Kent Bazemore get away. They swung for the fences by trading two first round picks for Steve Nash, whom injuries limited to 65 ineffective games over two seasons.

The silver lining was ending up with lottery picks in the last three drafts, which they used on their future core of Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram, to go along with later picks Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. They also replaced Scott with new head coach Luke Walton – a former Laker, an assistant on Golden State's 73-win team and a prototypical player's coach. With the Lakers unsuccessful at completing a quick fix by signing an all-star free agent, they shifted their strategy this year to aim lower, signing players who were less in demand and whom they could lock up quickly. They came to terms with ex-Cavs center Timofey Mosgov shortly after free agency opened (passing on the more desirable Hassan Whiteside and Al Horford), and also signed small forward Luol Deng from the Miami Heat.

As a result the Lakers will be incrementally improved, and will win more than last season's all-time franchise low of 17 games. But they're not contenders yet. The team will still finish at or near the bottom of the Western conference standings, and will again be in the lottery for what projects to be a very strong draft. But as a result of the Nash trade, they will lose their first round pick (along with their 2019 pick) if it isn't among the top three. Look for Walton to start making a difference right away as he focuses on the development of his young players, but don't look for the Lakers to be contending again before 2018 or 2019.

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