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NBA’S NEXT WAVE OF BREAKOUT STARS – PREDICTION

Jul 21, 2022

The 2022 version of NBA free agency is effectively finished.

James Harden still needs to finalize his pact with the Philadelphia 76ers, Collin Sexton needs to sign a new contract somewhere and a handful of veterans have to latch on to someone’s back end of the roster. Otherwise, the heavy lifting is done, and most rosters look the way they will when training camp opens in a few months.

Still, there is at least one unanswered question hovering around every team, so we are breaking down the biggest one for each.

Atlanta Hawks: What’s Happening with John Collins?

The Atlanta Hawks brokered one big deal this summer while adding All-Star guard Dejounte Murray, but could another blockbuster be in the works? High-flying forward John Collins is no stranger to the rumor mill, but his name has never buzzed quite like this.

“The likelihood of a John Collins trade, league sources indicate, is as high as it’s ever been,” Marc Stein reported in June. “… I’ve been advised that relocation for Collins this offseason is pretty much expected now.”

Collins has been hyper-productive for the Hawks (16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per night), but his skill set runs a little redundant with starting center Clint Capela, and his presence puts a barricade in front of Onyeka Okongwu, the No. 6 pick of the 2020 draft. It seems that is reason enough for Atlanta to at least entertain Collins trade talks, though it’s uncertain when (or if) the Hawks will actually trade him and what they want in return.

Boston Celtics: Are the Jays Ready to Lead a Title Run?

The Boston Celtics leveled up to juggernaut status late last season, posting a 26-6 record over their final 32 regular-season games and eventually securing their first Eastern Conference championship since 2010. This offseason, the front office leveled up the roster by trading for Malcolm Brogdon and signing Danilo Gallinari.

This might be the best lineup in basketball, but is it championship-ready? That question will hinge on the progress and production of All-Star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Last season’s sprint to the Finals never happens without them, but when Boston needed their best, they could not deliver. Tatum shot a dismal 36.7 percent against the Golden State Warriors, while Brown coughed up 10 turnovers during the series’ final two contests.

With seemingly all of the necessary support pieces now in place, the Celtics’ stars have no excuses. If this group stays healthy, it is ready to follow Tatum and Brown—if those two are ready to lead a title run.

Brooklyn Nets: Is Kevin Durant Staying or Going?

The Nets understandably want the moon and the stars in any Kevin Durant trade. That would be a sensible stance any time given his prominent place in the best-player-on-the-planet discussion, but it’s even more reasonable right now with the astronomic trade prices paid for Dejounte Murray and Rudy Gobert.

However, just because Brooklyn is right to seek a potentially historic return, that does not mean anyone will pay it. And with Durant signed through 2025-26, the Nets have zero reasons to consider dropping that price even one penny.

While it is hard to put percentages on ongoing trade scenarios, the possibility of Durant being in Brooklyn for the season opener is not zero. It still feels like a long shot for now—you’d like everyone in a locker room to want to be there—but it can’t be ruled out, which adds a fascinating layer to what was already a potentially landscape-shifting situation.

Charlotte Hornets: Who Picks Up the Scoring Slack?

Last season, the Hornets had the Association’s eighth-most efficient offense. Sustaining that production—if not improving it—felt inevitable given the age and trajectory of Charlotte’s young core.

However, the Hornets are currently without that group’s leading scorer, as they have yet to re-sign Miles Bridges following his felony domestic violence arrest.

Charlotte has no obvious place to turn to fill that void. LaMelo Ball can only climb so high after pumping in 20.1 points per night last season, and Terry Rozier seemingly peaked in the same area.

Unless Gordon Hayward can (stay healthy and) turn back the clock or a young player like James Bouknight or JT Thor can fast-track their development, this attack could lose some serious steam.

Chicago Bulls: Can They Count on Lonzo Ball?

When Lonzo Ball suited up for the final time on Jan. 14, Chicago held a 27-13 record with a plus-2.7 net rating. From that point forward, the Bulls managed just a 19-23 mark and were outscored by 3.6 points per 100 possessions.

An offensive connector as a ball-mover and spot-up shooter and defensive disruptor, Ball provided immense value before a meniscus tear in his left knee forced him off the floor. His initial timetable had him shelved for six to eight weeks; some six months later, the Bulls are still awaiting his return and unsure when it will ever happen.

“He’s getting better. Probably not at the speed that we would like. But he’s getting better,” Bulls executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas said, via NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson. “Hopefully, he’s going to be ready for training camp. That’s just our hope.”

Yikes. Whatever Chicago’s goals are for the 2022-23 campaign—given the age and cost of its core, it better be contending for a title or something in that vicinity—they are unreachable without a healthy Ball. The Bulls cannot develop or deal for a replacement, so they are left only hoping for the best.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Is Collin Sexton Coming Back?

Someone gets tangled up in the thorns of restricted free agency nearly every summer. This time around, Collin Sexton is apparently that someone.

His path back to Cleveland has always appeared a little murky, as he isn’t the cleanest fit with All-Star point guard Darius Garland. The problem for Sexton is that his list of potential external suitors may have dwindled down to nothing.

As one executive told Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor earlier this month, Sexton “has no market.”

Presumably, there is a middle-ground price point at which Sexton and the Cavaliers could come together on a new deal, but does either side want that? Sexton can only get so much exposure in a Garland-led backcourt, and Cleveland’s shift toward size and defense does not really leave an opening for a 6’1″ scoring guard like Sexton.

Dallas Mavericks: Can Christian Wood Be Luka’s Co-Star?

Luka Doncic needs a top-shelf co-star. The Mavericks will not officially join the championship conversation until he has one.

Kristaps Porzingis could not make it work. Jalen Brunson did not bother sticking around to try. Will Christian Wood pass the test?

The skilled combo big has put up gaudy numbers before, but he has yet to produce for a winning team. His offensive arsenal makes him an intriguing dance partner for Doncic—they can pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop opponents into oblivion—but Wood must make huge strides with his consistency and defense to handle a significant role with a win-now team.

Denver Nuggets: Can Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Get Back on Track?

The Nuggets look like title contenders on paper. That will only be the case if Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. still look like themselves after lengthy layoffs.

Murray has not suited up since suffering a torn ACL in his left knee in April 2021. Porter played only nine unproductive games this past season before undergoing third back surgery.

Murray (25) and Porter (24) are young enough to extend the benefit of the doubt with their recovery, though Porter’s injury history complicates that. Still, Denver needs them to hit the ground running and be rust-free by the playoffs, because even a supreme talent like two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic cannot chase a championship on his own.

Detroit Pistons: Will Cade Cunningham Make the All-Star Leap?

Pistons fans, it’s OK to get downright giddy about the direction of your franchise. The excitement brewing around this young nucleus is not at all bound by the Motor City’s borders.

“I’m excited to see them play over the next two or three years, because I think, in two or three years they will be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference,” NBA sharpshooter-turned-analyst JJ Redick said, via Marlowe Alter of the Detroit Free Press.

That is a bold statement, but Redick added one Cade Cunningham-related stipulation: “[becoming] a true No. 1 franchise-level player.”

The Pistons might eventually have different paths to the top, but they all start with Cunningham making (at least) an All-Star turn. He started hitting the jets late last season with post-All-Star averages of 21.1 points, 6.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds, but the challenge now is sustaining (or, ideally, improving) those numbers over a full season.

Golden State Warriors: How Much Can the Young Players Handle?

The workload on the Warriors’ young players is going up. It is not clear how many minutes are available and which players will be tasked with them, but Golden State’s prospects will clearly have more on their plates.

Mathematics say they have to. Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr., Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson all left in free agency. The only external additions were Donte DiVincenzo and, assuming he clears waivers, JaMychal Green, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported. Someone has to replace those minutes, and it will not be the 30-somethings who just brought their fourth world title to the Bay.

Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman and Moses Moody are the most obvious candidates for promotions, but are they ready to handle major minutes for a contender? Does Jordan Poole still have another level he can reach? Is there any chance a rookie like Patrick Baldwin Jr. or Ryan Rollins enters the equation?

If enough of these young players are ready to take flight, the Dubs could be nightmarishly good.

Houston Rockets: Is There Enough Talent to Attract Top Free Agents?

The Rockets might be between the infant and toddler stage of their post-James Harden rebuild, but they will have a chance to grow up quickly.

“They are ready to be a cap space player as early as next summer, and they’re in a market where free agents are going to look at them,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on his podcast, via RocketsWire’s Ben DuBose. “This team is now a sleeping giant in free agency, starting next summer, and could go from bad to interesting really freaking fast.”

Houston could have around $80 million in cap space, and that type of spending money speaks to anyone. Still, the Rockets’ recruiting pitch would be a lot stronger if it comes on the heels of some breakout campaigns for players like Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher, Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason.

Indiana Pacers: Is a Myles Turner Trade Finally Happening?

Myles Turner has spent as much time on the trade block as anyone in recent years, and Indy’s shift toward a rebuild (or, at least, a reset around Tyrese Haliburton) could finally spell the end of Turner’s run in the Circle City.

If the Pacers’ thoughts on Turner weren’t clear by this point—he certainly thought they were—their recent decision to ink Deandre Ayton to a four-year, $133 million offer sheet (immediately matched by the Phoenix Suns) should have hammered them home. Indy aggressively sought out his replacement while he was still on the roster. That cannot be swept under the rug.

The proverbial cat is out of the bag, and soon, Turner will likely be out of Indiana. He is entering the final season on his contract, and it might be best for all parties involved if he spends it elsewhere.

Los Angeles Clippers: Is Kawhi Leonard Ready to Rejoin the Elites?

June 14, 2021. That is the last time Clippers fans—and the entire NBA—caught a glimpse of Kawhi Leonard in action.

He has been shelved by a torn right ACL ever since, leaving L.A. to tread water in his absence. However, if his body cooperates, he could have the Clippers parading through pools of Champagne in no time.

A healthy Leonard adds another name to the best-on-the-planet discussion…and the MVP race. He might be basketball’s best defender while doubling as a ruthlessly efficient scorer and perpetually improving playmaker. As long as he is good to go, L.A. might just follow his lead to the top.

Los Angeles Lakers: Can They Make It Work with Russell Westbrook?

While it does not sound as if the Lakers have ruled out a Russell Westbrook trade, they at least seem to recognize the many challenges attached to it and the fact it might be too difficult to get done.

New coach Darvin Ham has already detailed plans for a Brodie bounce-back. The Lakers have reportedly declined to part with multiple first-round picks in a trade involving Westbrook and Kyrie Irving, which could kill those trade talks. Now, Westbrook has spoken with LeBron James and Anthony Davis “with each expressing their commitment to one another and vowing to make it work,” per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes.

It is not entirely clear how much of this is posturing, how genuine and how much is a late attempt to make the best of a brutal situation. And that actually doesn’t matter. It sure sounds like the plan is to keep Westbrook around (for now, at least), so the only thing that matters is finding the right role for his talents to help the team.

The thought of Westbrook setting screens and then exploding out of them for rim attacks or drive-and-kicks remains intriguing as ever, but can the 33-year-old finally be convinced to ditch his ball-dominant ways for the betterment of the team? Stay tuned.

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