NBA media days kicked off in full force Monday, serving as the precursor to the start of training camps league-wide. With the league officially back in action, we here at BBALLBREAKDOWN will be walking through the major training camp questions each team must address, starting with the Central Division.
1. Tristan Thompson contract situation
More than three months after extending a qualifying offer to Tristan Thompson, the Cleveland Cavaliers have still yet to reach an agreement on a contract with the fourth-year forward. According to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst, Thompson has until Thursday to accept the Cavs’ $6.9 million qualifying offer, which would result in him becoming a free agent following the 2015-16 season.
Over the weekend, ESPN’s Chris Broussard reported Thompson would be willing to sign a three-year, $53 million deal rather than his originally demanded five-year, $94 million max contract, but the Cavs have yet to budge. If the two sides can’t meet in the middle by Thursday, it appears as though Thompson will be leaving Cleveland following the 2015-16 season, based on the comments his agent made in August.
During Cleveland’s media day, LeBron James told reporters that he was “optimistic about [Thompson] being back.” The fallout of this situation could have dire consequences for Cleveland’s title chances if Thompson allows his negative feelings toward the team’s front office to affect his on-court contributions in any way.
2. Status of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love
Both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving suffered season-ending injuries during the Cavaliers’ march toward an NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, casting doubt about their availability heading into training camp. According to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, the Cavs expect both to participate in camp at least in a limited capacity, but their respective timetables for a full return remain unclear.
Irving has been running for three weeks, per Lloyd, but he isn’t yet cleared for two-a-days and has no concrete timetable for his full return. Earlier this summer, Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group reported Irving “could very well be unavailable up until January,” although Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer later reported “the Cavs expect [Irving] to play well before January.” Even if Irving does make his season debut in 2015, however, Cleveland plans “to cut his minutes early in the season,” according to Pluto.
Love, meanwhile, is “expected to be ready for the opener,” per Pluto, “but the Cavs want to keep his minutes somewhat modest early in the season.” During media day, the UCLA product told reporters that his shoulder feels great, but he still expects to be a limited participant at the start of camp. While Cleveland will be much more concerned with keeping its Big Three healthy for another prolonged playoff run, the early-season status of Love and Irving bears watching regardless.
3. Who replaces Iman Shumpert?
As if the Cavs didn’t already enter training camp with enough injury concerns, the franchise announced Tuesday that Iman Shumpert would miss 12 to 14 weeks after suffering a ruptured extensor carpi ulnaris sheath in his right wrist. According to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, Cleveland general manager David Griffin said Shumpert “had an issue where he hit the rim” with his right wrist the previous week.
In theory, J.R. Smith is the front-runner to slide into Shumpert’s starting 2 spot, but he’s nowhere near the same caliber of lockdown perimeter defender, which could place a heavier burden on LeBron James’ shoulders. It also means Cleveland will likely have to rely upon dual point guard lineups with Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova until Irving and Shumpert are back up to speed. The odds of the Cavs securing home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs took a major hit with the Shumpert news.
1. How will the Bulls adjust to Hoiball?
After five years with Tom Thibodeau at the helm, the Bulls enter the 2015-16 campaign with a new head coach, Fred Hoiberg. Unlike Thibodeau, who joined the Bulls with the reputation of being a defensive mastermind, Hoiberg built his reputation on innovative offense during his time at Iowa State, which represents a marked change for this franchise.
As BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Randy Sherman wrote earlier this summer, Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams often looked to push the tempo, using “drag screens and ‘pistol’ action early in the possession to generate shot opportunities.” BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Coach Nick likewise expects the Bulls to be much less offensively stagnant as they were under Thibodeau, although he questioned Derrick Rose’s fit in the Hoiberg offense.
If media day comments are any indication, the early returns on the Hoiberg era appear to be positive:
Noah on Hoiberg: "It's a new system. It's a new philosophy. I'll be coming in with an open mind."
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) September 28, 2015
Rose on Hoiberg: "He brings something new to the table, he's more relaxed. I think the players will appreciate it."
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) September 28, 2015
Until we see the Bulls in action, though, it remains to be seen how quickly they adjust to playing in a drastically different system than they’ve had for the past half-decade.
2. Who starts at SF with Dunleavy out?
The Cavaliers aren’t the only franchise in the Central to be decimated by preseason injuries. While Derrick Rose should return somewhat quickly from the left orbital fracture he suffered during the first day of training camp—he’s expected to resume basketball activities in two weeks, per USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt—the same can’t be said for Mike Dunleavy.
The 35-year-old “experienced some occasional back discomfort over the summer which had recently worsened,” according to a release from the team, and thus underwent a low back microdiscectomy procedure expected to sideline him for eight to 10 weeks. In the meantime, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott appear to be in line for expanded roles to start the year.
After starting 22 games last season, Snell may be the slight favorite to slide into Dunleavy’s vacant spot, but a strong training camp from McDermott could change that. If McBuckets can put his disappointing rookie campaign behind him and start raining down treys like he did during his Creighton days, Hoiberg will have a difficult decision to make.
3. How will the frontcourt minutes shake out?
The Bulls have the ultimate #firstworldproblem when it comes to their frontcourt depth. In Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, they have four bigs who each deserve upwards of 30 minutes per night, which makes juggling their respective playing time a season-long headache.
Thibodeau occasionally trotted out Mirotic at the 3 to give all four of his bigs adequate playing time, but the Montenegrin performed far better at the 4, per 82games.com. Meanwhile, the starting duo of Gasol and Noah never made much sense last year, as pairing Mirotic’s three-point shooting with Noah’s defense would be far more preferable, with Gibson and Gasol coming off the bench.
Further complicating the equation is the Bulls’ first-round pick, Bobby Portis, who flashed some NBA-ready upside during summer league. If Hoiberg can’t figure out how to juggle his big men productively—barring injuries or a trade—it will drastically reduce the Bulls’ chances of toppling the Cavaliers come playoff time.
1. Who starts at SF?
This will be one of the league’s top training camp battles to monitor, as the Pistons will have No. 8 overall pick Stanley Johnson pitted against five-year veteran Marcus Morris for the starting 3 spot. While Morris may have the early edge by virtue of being a veteran, Johnson hasn’t wasted any time impressing his head coach.
“He looked good, He played very, very well,” Stan Van Gundy said in reference to Johnson after the Pistons’ first practice, per Keith Langlois of the team’s website. “He was one of the better players in the little bit of five on five we did.”
During an August appearance on Grantland’s Lowe Post podcast, Van Gundy told Zach Lowe, “When you go 32-50, nobody’s got a spot locked in,” per Fox Sports. If Johnson shows out well at training camp and throughout the preseason, he could well move ahead of Morris in the rotation.
2. How to handle backup PG minutes
Until Brandon Jennings returns from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered this past January, the Pistons will rely upon Spencer Dinwiddie and Steve Blake to back up Reggie Jackson at the point guard spot. If Van Gundy’s comments to Langlois are any indication, Blake may be in line for a significant role at the start of the season.
“We like Spencer (Dinwiddie) and we think he’s got a chance to be a really good, young player,” Van Gundy said. “But we just needed a third guard, anyway, early in the year and wanted to make sure, with as many new guys as we have, that we had a veteran guy who’s been through it and knows what’s going on and can help you through those times.”
Dinwiddie, last season’s No. 38 overall pick, eventually projects to take over as the Pistons’ backup point guard of the future. For the next few months, however, it appears as though Blake is the front-runner to hold down the fort at the point while Jackson catches a breather on the bench.
3. Brandon Jennings’ future
This question won’t be resolved during training camp, but it’s easily one of the biggest issues looming over the franchise in 2015-16. After the Pistons signed Jackson to a five-year, $80 million contract this summer, the writing is on the wall regarding Jennings’ long-term future in Detroit.
Van Gundy told Langlois that Jennings isn’t set to start playing five-on-five, even on a limited basis, until mid-November, and “it might still be several weeks before he’s really ready to play after that.” In other words, a return in early December appears to be the best-case scenario for the seventh-year floor general, barring any setbacks in his recovery.
Detroit likely won’t find much of a trade market for Jennings until he returns to the floor, especially since he’s on an expiring contract. If the organization can find a willing taker for him, though, it would be wise to explore any and all options, as he’s presumably unlikely to re-sign there next summer to be Jackson’s backup.
1. Paul George at PF
Pacers president Larry Bird raised more than a few eyebrows when, at his season-ending press conference, he declared a philosophical shift was afoot. The days of starting a bruising frontcourt of David West and Roy Hibbert were a thing of the past; instead, the Pacers would be joining the small-ball revolution by playing Paul George at the 4 on occasion.
The Fresno State product, however, isn’t exactly all-in on the move, as he recently told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star.
“I told them I’m open for a change. I wasn’t extremely thrilled about it when they first presented it to me,” George said, “but the way the league is going and my playing style, I think I can fit right into it. We’ll see how it goes during camp whether I’m comfortable with it or not, then we’ll just make that decision from there. But to start it out, I’m open for the change.”
Bird already came out on the offensive regarding George’s pushback, telling reporters in July, “Well, he don’t make the decisions around here.” Seeing how head coach Frank Vogel navigates this potentially thorny path is easily one of the biggest storylines to monitor at Pacers camp.
2. Can Myles Turner supplant Ian Mahinmi?
Vogel told Buckner that he’s tentatively planning on starting Ian Mahinmi at the 5, but No. 11 overall pick Myles Turner looms large in the background. The Texas product is tailor-made for the Pacers’ new uptempo style, as he’s capable of grabbing a board, running the floor and knocking down a perimeter jumper.
“He’s probably the best shooter on the team,” Bird told reporters Monday, per Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star. “He’s better than a lot of our three-point shooters. Put it this way: I think he’s our best shooter, but [I know] he’s as good as anyone we’ve got. And he’s 7 foot. He’s excellent.”
The big man made major waves at summer league, averaging 18.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in 29.0 minutes per game over his three appearances (while going 2-of-3 from deep, too). Turner might not begin the year as the starting 5, but based on Bird’s glowing comments about him, he figures to be in line for significant minutes right out of the gate.
3. Which Monta is Indiana getting?
Prior to joining the Dallas Mavericks, the book appeared to be out on Monta Ellis. He was an undersized, high-volume, low-efficiency scorer who wasn’t much of a threat behind the three-point line, coughed the ball up all too frequently and provided little value on defense beyond his knack to come up with steals.
In Dallas, however, Ellis somewhat reined in his out-of-control shot selection, settling in nicely as the No. 2 scoring option behind Dirk Nowitzki. Over each of his past seven seasons, he’s used at least 25 percent of his team’s possessions when on the floor, which helps explain why he and the ball-dominant Rajon Rondo failed to co-exist upon the mercurial point guard’s midseason arrival in Dallas.
Will Ellis have the same problem with George Hill, a notoriously low-usage floor general prior to this past season? Can he settle in behind Paul George like he did with Dirk in Dallas? Given the Pacers’ need for a secondary scorer, there are reasons to be optimistic about this new marriage, but it’s also not difficult to imagine Ellis’ time in Indiana going south quickly if he and George clash over possession usage.
1. Greg Monroe’s fit
The Bucks made one of the biggest splashes in free agency this summer, luring Greg Monroe to Milwaukee with a three-year max deal. It’s not difficult to understand the Bucks’ rationale here, as Monroe will provide the low-post scoring punch they’ve sorely lacked in recent years, rounding out their offensive attack.
As BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Dakota Schmidt noted back in July, Monroe has a “complete arsenal of post-up moves” including drop steps and hook shots from either side of the paint. He’s also a lethal passer, more than capable and willing of passing out of double-teams when the opportunity presents itself.
Monroe isn’t a lockdown defender, but Milwaukee’s lanky perimeter players like Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo may help prevent some paint penetration, guarding Monroe from being exposed on that end. In theory, the Georgetown product makes perfect sense with the Bucks, but this signing can’t be crowned a success until we see him in action.
2. What to expect from Jabari Parker
Jabari Parker’s rookie season was abruptly cut short when he tore his ACL in mid-December, robbing Milwaukee of perhaps its top offensive threat. Nine months later, the former Duke Blue Devil is medically cleared to participate in training camp—he went through a full practice Tuesday, per Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—but his early-season contributions could still be limited.
“If we think he can play 30 minutes, we’ll probably play him 15,” general manager John Hammond told reporters in late September. “Wherever he might be, we’re always going to be cautious with him.”
Head coach Jason Kidd echoed that sentiment, saying, “We’re not going to rush him back. This is a bigger picture.” The Bucks’ patience with their young franchise cornerstone is admirable, but it means fans of the team shouldn’t expect a big splash from Parker in the early going.
3. Floor spacing
The Bucks are loaded with talented young up-and-comers, but one thing they sorely lack is ideal floor spacing. Of their five most accurate three-point shooters from last season, just one, Khris Middleton, is returning in 2015-16, as Brandon Knight, Kendall Marshall, Ersan Ilyasova and Jared Dudley are taking up residence elsewhere.
Beyond those five, O.J. Mayo was the only other Milwaukee player to knock down at least 35 percent of his attempted triples last season. Parker, Antetokounmpo and MCW, meanwhile, knocked down a grand total of 15 treys (on 88 attempts) during their time with the Bucks in 2014-15.
If opponents have no reason to fear the Bucks beyond the three-point line, they won’t hesitate to pack the paint and dare them to fire away from deep. Carter-Williams, in particular, fell victim to that treatment upon joining Milwaukee at the trade deadline. Ideally, someone beyond Middleton and Mayo will come into camp with an improved three-point stroke; otherwise, the Bucks’ offensive ceiling could be capped.