Steph Curry put on a show, winning his fourth championship and first Finals MVP to cement his place in basketball history.
But the Golden State Warriors’ latest title triumph is just that — history — with NBA training camps opening on September 27 (local time) as attention turns towards a new season.
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With it comes plenty of intriguing headlines, including the return to the court of Australian star Ben Simmons and the question of how the Lakers respond after a disappointing season.
For all that and more, here are some of the key storylines to follow before, during and after training camp.
WHAT HAPPENS WITH RUSSELL WESTBROOK?
Making the play-in tournament would have been a failure for the Lakers. Missing it entirely seemed inconceivable before a ball was tipped off.
Yet that is where LeBron James and the Lakers found themselves in early April this year and in the immediate aftermath, it looked like Russell Westbrook’s time in L.A. was over.
Of course, it was going to be no easy task to move Westbrook on given the fact he is owed $47 million in the final year of his deal.
But when he split with longtime manager Thad Foucher after “irreconcilable differences” over his future at the Lakers, it looked untenable, regardless of what Darvin Ham said publicly.
Yet here we are, with Westbrook to return in the purple and gold for training camp, although it is clear there is still tension bubbling away in the background.
“Whether they want me here or not doesn’t really matter, honestly,” Westbrook said when asked if the Lakers still want him.
“My job is to be professional, show up to work, like I’ve always done. Thus far, I did my job the best way I know how to and that’s it. I mean, you all have jobs, sometimes people at our jobs don’t like us or don’t want us there.”
If the relationship between Westbrook and the Lakers is already strained, it will only be further tested amid reports the team may have the nine-time All-Star come off the bench.
Sources told The Athletic last week that the Lakers are “hopeful” that they can make it work with Westbrook this season but the prospect of him coming off the bench is “being strongly considered”.
NBA insider Marc Stein though reported that Westbrook is viewed as one of two lead guards for the Lakers along with the returning Denis Schroder ahead of training camp.
That would then leave Pat Beverley and Kendrick Nunn as bench options, although Westbrook will need to prove the team chemistry won’t suffer if he is given the starting gig again.
If he can’t, trade rumours continue to swirl with Westbrook’s future at the organisation still in doubt, although there are two key stumbling blocks to the Lakers striking a potential deal.
The Athletic reports that the Lakers are still reluctant to take on salary into next season and part ways with both first-round picks they can trade, limiting their bargaining power.
The same report listed Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Buddy Hield and Malik Beasley as possible targets should they budge on those sticking points.
For now, ahead of training camp, all eyes will be on whether Westbrook starts or comes off the bench, as well as whether he is willing to put his ego aside to play off the ball more.
CAN THE ‘BIG THREE’ PUT THE DRAMA BEHIND THEM?
When Ben Simmons was sent to Brooklyn as part of the blockbuster James Harden trade, he declared it was going to be “scary” playing with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
But instead it almost became a case of the ‘Big Three’ that never was, with Durant requesting a trade of his own in the off-season that would never eventuate.
Even Irving himself admitted it was an “awkward clusterf***”.
Now they are running it back but putting aside the Durant drama and Irving’s vaccination status, no one exactly knows what version of Simmons the Nets will be getting at training camp.
Last year Simmons did not even report for training camp, instead holding out and insisting he would never play for Philadelphia again in what was a precurse for the ugly trade saga to come.
Before we even talk about how Simmons will look on the court, he first had to front reporters on media day to answer lingering question marks from his Philadelphia exit.
But Simmons had already got a headstart in that regard by appearing on JJ Redick’s podcast this week, where he can answer some of those questions in a less imposing environment.
Now attention will turn to how Simmons moves on the court after undergoing successful back surgery in early May to address a herniated disc.
While there is legitimate doubt over how quickly Simmons camp ramp up after spending so much time away from the court, it could also work in the Australian’s favour.
After all, expectations won’t be particularly high for him to be at his best right away and with Durant and Irving capable of shouldering the load on the offensive end, there is no need for him to be that guy yet anyway.
There also may be an element of people underestimating just how good Simmons is. After all, it has been a while since we have seen him on the court and all that anyone remembers is that passed-up dunk against the Hawks.
If we see the other side of Simmons — the versatility on the defensive end, the ability to push the pace in transition — the Nets can be the genuine title contender everyone expected them to be.
WILL A TITLE CONTENDER STRIKE IN SUNS TRADE SHAKE-UP?
The Phoenix Suns were already an interesting team to follow in training camp, having crashed out of the playoffs in stunning fashion last season.
First there is the change of ownership and then on the court Chris Paul will be a year older, again looking to prove age will be no factor in slowing him down.
Nevertheless, Phoenix needs to capitalise on its closing title window but the franchise will be doing it without Jae Crowder.
It was confirmed on Monday that the Suns and Crowder have “mutually agreed” that the 32-year-old will not partake in training camp.
Instead, the two sides will work on a trade, with the veteran forward expected to be on a new team before the new season tips off.
Crowder averaged 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists for Phoenix last season and was entering the final season of a three-year, $30 million deal.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst though reported on Monday that Crowder was looking at a more limited role with Phoenix this season as the franchise looked to get more game time for Cameron Johnson.
The Suns should not have too much trouble finding potential suitors for Crowder, a valuable two-way player on an expiring $10 million contract.
The Suns had been engaged in trade talks over the summer but were unable to find a deal for Crowder, initially interested in Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic before he was sent to the Pistons.
Boston, Dallas, Memphis and Miami have all been floated as possible trade destinations for Crowder, according to NBA insider Shams Charania.
‘IT’S BEEN HELL’: CELTICS FACE ‘DIFFICULT’ TASK WITHOUT HEAD COACH
The Celtics may have fallen just short in their bid for the title last season but Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were going to be better for the experience.
This was an NBA powerhouse on the rise again, ready to go all the way to the championship, led by their coach — and brutal straight shooter — Ime Udoka.
Udoka was the perfect hire, but now he is going to spend the entire 2022-23 season away from the team, suspended for a violation of team policies.
Now, with training camp just a few days away, the Celtics must quickly adjust for another title tilt without their head coach as they look to build on last season’s success.
Assistant coach Joe Mazulla will take over as interim head coach in the meantime but training camp will offer an early insight into whether Udoka’s ban could have a destabilising impact.
It will also give the media a chance to speak to the players themselves to gauge how the news has gone down with the group, who Udoka did so well to bring together after a shaky start to the 2021-22 season.
The early indications is that the players themselves were taken aback by the news as the rest of the NBA world.
“It’s been hell for us,” Marcus Smart said on media day.
“Caught by surprise. Nobody really knows anything, so we’re just in the wind like everybody else. So these last couple of days have been confusing.”
“Coming into this season, you feel a certain way coming off last year and you are excited,” added Jayson Tatum.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation, all things considered. Nobody expected this coming into the season. We were all caught off guard by everything.”
Speaking on ESPN’s ‘This Just In’, Richard Jefferson said it is going to be “difficult” for Boston to reach the same heights without Udoka.
“When you look at the Celtics and the growth they had, I think last year was just the beginning of the building process,” he said.
“You were looking for them to grow. Their superstars are so young. You’ve got the defending Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Smart.
“You’ve got so much talent there with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum that if that group they have continued to get better, even two or three per cent, that could be all it would take to win an NBA championship.
“The fact you’re not going to have that continuity coming into your two and for some of these players, this is going to be their third coach now in three seasons. It’s going to be difficult.”
WHAT WILL JOSH GIDDEY’S SHOOTING LOOK LIKE?
Josh Giddey broke records and gave Thunder fans reason to believe in his rookie season but even the Australian knows his shooting remains an area of improvement.
Speaking at his end-of-season exit interview, Giddey admitted shooting is a “swing factor” in his game, having only shot 26.3 per cent from 3-point land.
Now with Chip Engelland, who Giddey described as a “master” and “shooting genius”, the expectation is that the 19-year-old will at least take a step towards being a league-average shooter.
Of course, it is unrealistic to think Giddey will take that step right away after a few weeks working with Engelland and his shooting will likely improve as the season goes on.
Training camp though will give Thunder fans an early glimpse at whether there have been any changes in the Australian’s mechanics or technique. The biggest thing to look out for though is confidence.
Giddey told foxsports.com.au earlier this month that it is one of the “biggest things” Engelland has been working with him on in the short time they have had together.
“I think that was one of the things for me last year,” Giddey said.
“I missed a shot, I start overthinking things but Chip is different to any other coach I’ve ever had in the way he approaches [it].
“He’s not trying to change my whole shot or make one big difference. It’s just little things, it’s taking it day-by-day andmaking sure there’s always carry-over from some different sessions.”
Giddey’s shooting will be particularly important this season as he and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander look to share the ball-handling responsibilities around.
The 24-year-old though is set to miss at least the start of training camp with a left MCL sprain, limiting the opportunities to see his fit with Giddey before the season proper begins.
THE JAZZ ARE IN UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY… SO, WHERE TO NEXT?
The Utah Jazz are the only team in league history to have never lost 60 or more games in a season. That record though could be under threat.
After crashing out of the playoffs in spectacular fashion last season, the Jazz traded away franchise centrepieces Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and are now in full-scale rebuild mode.
That is only the start too. Utah needs to move on at least two other players, as the Gobert and Mitchell trades left them with 17 players with full contracts on the roster instead of the required 15.
Given the Jazz are rebuilding, it also makes sense to try see what they can get on the open market as opposed to waiving players.
Veteran wing Bojan Bogdanovic has already been moved on, traded to the Pistons in exchange for Kelly Olynyk and Saben Lee.
Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley and Rudy Gay have also all been floated in possible trade discussions, with ESPN’s Zach Lowe reporting the Jazz believe the first two are each worth a first-round pick.
While the Jazz have not yet struck a deal for any of those three veteran players, The Athletic reported the Lakers “have targeted” Clarkson and Bogdanovic as well as Malik Beasley.
As mentioned earlier though, there are two key stumbling blocks to the Lakers striking any deal involving Westbrook and they would face similar issues if trying to trade with the Jazz.
First off, the Lakers are reluctant to part ways with their future first-round picks, which would be the real prized asset for the rebuilding Jazz.
Then you also have the fact the Lakers reportedly do not want to bring in multi-year contracts, which would be likely in taking on Conley, Clarkson or Beasley.
Put simply, a three-team deal may be needed but the Jazz’s trade movements are still worth monitoring before and during training camp.
After all, only Clarkson himself told Complex this week that if he is in Utah he wants to “win”, which won’t be happening with Gobert and Mitchell gone.
“I want to strive for the playoffs, try to put a team together that could win something,” he said.
“It’s hard to go down from [where we were].”
Training camp will also serve as a chance for not only the fans but the players themselves to get to know each other and their games, with 14 of the 20 plays on the Jazz roster new to the team this year.
WHAT DOES A BRAND-NEW ZION MEAN FOR THE PELICANS?
The Pelicans were one of the biggest surprises last season, recovering from the NBA’s worst record to not only make the playoffs but push the Phoenix Suns to six games.
And they did that all without Zion Williamson.
Now, according to his strength and conditioning coach, Williamson is ready to make up for lost time — and in a big way.
“He’s in fantastic shape,” Jasper Bibbs told The Athletic.
“He’s been committed to putting in the work day in and day out. I’m really proud of what he’s been able to accomplish. He’s a better athlete now than he’s ever been.
“I’m very happy with his commitment to not only his conditioning, but his commitment to doing all the tedious soft-tissue work, the stretching and his nutrition. He’s been phenomenal with his nutrition.”
It is consistent with reporting from Pelicans insider Andrew Lopez, who told ESPN he had also heard from “multiple people around the team” that Williamson is “in the best shape” of his career.
The 22-year-old has been unable to reach his full potential since starting out in the NBA in 2019, missing 141 games through the first three years of his career.
The last time Williamson was fit and healthy, he was averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and four assists while shooting 61 per cent from the field.
With a strong core and emerging young talent, including Australian rookie Dyson Daniels, the Pelicans shape as a genuine wildcard this year for the championship.
And by the time training camp rolls around, everyone will want to get an early look at the brand-new Williamson to see whether this could finally be the season it all comes together.
“I feel like I’m at my best right now,” Williamson said at media day.
“I feel like I’m moving faster, jumping higher. I feel great.”
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” added teammate CJ McCollum.
“But I think his production speaks for himself on how consistent he’s been when he’s played. I think it’s just him and like two other Hall of Famers that shoot over 60 per cent over 25 points a game.”
FRESH GUNS: AN EARLY LOOK AT LUKA AND HARDEN, FITTER THAN EVER
Speaking of players looking in their best shape, it will be also interesting to see how Luka Doncic and James Harden fare after rigid off-seasons.
Last year Doncic reportedly turned up to training camp 30 pounds heavier than his listed weight after a busy schedule, admitting he needed to “be better” with his conditioning.
“I had a long summer. I had the Olympics, took three weeks off, and I relaxed a little bit. Maybe too much,” he said at the time.
“I’ve just got to get back on track.”
Having played a total of 164 minutes in five games for Slovenia at the recent EuroBasket, Doncic could have been at risk at returning to training camp a little underdone.
“We’re going to start a little light, but as we all know in this room, Luka loves to play basketball,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said at media day.
“He’s ready to go…but this is a marathon.”
That should not be an issue anyway, with Doncic putting extra work into improving his fitness during the off-season, looking noticeably slimmed down this summer.
Anze Macek, the kinesiologist who had been working with Doncic for the past two years, said the Slovenian superstar contacted him after last season, wanting to start fitness training.
“When he went on vacation, he asked me for a work plan,” Macek added, speaking to SportKlub Slovenija.
“He remains active. I am in contact with him almost on a daily basis. He keeps his shape.”
James Harden is another one of the league’s superstars who has come under constant scrutiny for failing to keep himself in shape, be it injury-related or otherwise.
This off-season though Harden has also looked a transformed man. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the 76ers were hoping Harden would come back for preseason in better condition than he had the previous few seasons and he certainly has lived up to expectations.
“It’s dieting,” said Harden of the change.
“It’s proper rest and then it’s just, for me, I think it’s strengthening my muscles and gaining more muscle mass, which I always had. It’s just this last year and a half, I wasn’t healthy enough to put the proper work in like I’m used to.
“This summer was huge for me in that aspect. The hill runs and the weight lifting were important and adding the skill on the court as well.”
Whether that translates to even more success on the court remains to be seen, although it is a welcome change for Harden and the Sixers ahead of training camp.