May 20, 2024

The NBA preseason wraps up Friday, which means one thing — it’s nearly time for the real campaign to tip off! But before we turn our attention to Tuesday’s opening games, there was plenty of action and intrigue from training camps around the league.

Among the highlights were San Antonio Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama making some spectacular plays, as well as Damian Lillard making his Milwaukee Bucks debut alongside fellow superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Elsewhere, we’re still in wait-and-see mode on whether James Harden gets his wish to be traded from the Philadelphia 76ers.

ESPN’s NBA insiders look back at what stood out this preseason ahead of next week’s tip-off.

Jump to a team:

Lakers | Spurs | Bucks | Mavericks | Warriors |
76ers | Celtics | Nuggets | Clippers | Nets


Fifth spot in starting lineup still up for grabs

Continuity has been the Lakers’ aim in the offseason, but the team has added players who give coach Darvin Ham some options for his starting lineup. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and last season’s breakout star, Austin Reaves, were no-brainers. Ham named D’Angelo Russell, benched at the end of last season’s Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets, as his starting point guard before training camp opened up, which ended speculation about Gabe Vincent parlaying his NBA Finals run with the Miami Heat into L.A.’s driver at point.

But what about that fifth starter? ESPN reported this summer that Davis told Lakers management that he wanted to play fewer minutes at the 5 after almost exclusively playing the position last year. The team took note, signing Jaxson Hayes and Christian Wood. It became clear during the preseason that Davis would still occupy the starting center role, which leaves three candidates for the last spot:

  • The incumbent, Jarred Vanderbilt.

  • The new guy, Taurean Prince, whom Ham himself described as the “quintessential 3-and-D player.”

  • Rui Hachimura, whom the organization raved about after he followed up his hot postseason by training with James all summer.

Vanderbilt suffered a bruised heel in L.A.’s first preseason game after providing his reliable brand of on-ball defense, while going 2-for-3 on corner 3s — something he worked on all offseason. With Vanderbilt out, Prince stepped in, shaking off a forgettable preseason debut when he fouled out after shooting 1-for-5, by shooting 11-for-20 from 3 with four steals in his next four exhibition games.

Vanderbilt, who will be reevaluated Friday, has the inside track on the position. But Ham would have plenty of confidence in Prince if Vanderbilt needs more time ahead of Tuesday’s opener at Denver. That would bump Hachimura to a bench role, where he could end up receiving Sixth Man of the Year consideration if all goes as planned for the Lakers. — Dave McMenamin


Center? Forward? Figuring out Wemby’s best role

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said that one of the “cool” questions the team needed to address at training camp was Victor Wembanyama‘s best position. Would it be at the center spot? Would it be one of the two forward spots? So far, power forward seems to be the answer.

Wembanyama has started every game he has played at power forward with either Zach Collins, the Spurs’ starting center, or Charles Bassey next to him. Sometimes the Spurs have gone with Wembanyama at center, but he has mostly spent his time on the wing.

On the other end, Wembanyama has been guarded by a host of players. The Houston Rockets used six different players in the half court Wednesday against Wembanyama — Jae’Sean Tate, Jabari Smith, Amen Thompson, Cam Whitmore, Reggie Bullock and Alperen Sengun — just in the first quarter of Wednesday night’s game.

Experimentation will last long into the season. And it won’t just involve the 7-foot-4 rookie. Popovich is already tinkering with the starting lineup. Against the Rockets — and to start the regular season, he announced Wednesday, the team slotted 6-foot-8 Jeremy Sochan as the team’s starting point guard alongside Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Wembanyama and Collins.

Last year’s starting point guard, Tre Jones, who signed to a two-year, $19 million extension this offseason, could come off the bench and allow the Spurs to shuffle the lineup even more. — Andrew Lopez

play

1:20

How does Wembanyama’s nutmeg stack up against the best in NBA history?

After Victor Wembanyama’s nutmeg in preseason, the “NBA Today” crew looks back at some the top nutmegs in league history.


Glimpses of brilliance from Lillard-Antetokounmpo duo

At shootaround before his first preseason game as a Buck, Damian Lillard knocked down a 3-pointer from the logo with Giannis Antetokounmpo standing behind him, his mouth wide open in amazement. The preseason offered a glimpse of what the Bucks’ new superstar duo is capable of and how their partnership should make things easier for both players.

“I’ve never been this open,” Antetokounmpo said after their preseason debut Monday night.

Neither Antetokounmpo nor Lillard have ever played with another star that garners as much attention as each of them command. So far the transition seems to be going smoothly. Off the court, both have been impressed with their similarities, with Antetokounmpo calling Lillard “a little version of me.”

Meanwhile, defenses have sent traps and double-teams at Lillard, which has given Antetokounmpo more space to attack the paint while opening up shots beyond the arc. Still, Antetokounmpo has expressed a willingness to defer to Lillard to help ease his transition with his new team.

Lillard anticipates there will be a learning curve with this new partnership in their pursuit of a championship, but so far, the Bucks have to be thrilled with the way their two stars have clicked. — Jamal Collier


Overseas trip did little for Doncic-Irving chemistry

The Mavericks’ preseason trip didn’t quite go as planned. The hope was that Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving could use the three-game journey to form the kind of chemistry that was difficult to create on the fly after Irving’s February arrival.

Instead, they played only a handful of minutes together during the preseason opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Abu Dhabi, as both stars dealt with injuries during the trip. Left groin soreness sidelined Irving for the second matchup against Minnesota in Abu Dhabi and for the Mavs’ game in Madrid, but he returned to practice in Dallas on Monday.

Doncic, dealing with a strained calf, jogged through the first five minutes of the matchup against his former team, Real Madrid, but Doncic was ruled out for the final week of the preseason. His status for the season opener is uncertain.

“We’ll get those two, or those three, back together at some point when they’re healthy,” coach Jason Kidd said, including offseason addition Grant Williams as part of the Mavs’ core trio. “But before we left, they were really good.”

The Mavs were really good offensively with Doncic and Irving on the floor last season, scoring 119.2 points per 100 possessions in the 444 minutes the duo played together. But the Mavs went 5-11 in those games, falling out of the playoff picture because of defensive struggles.

Clutch execution and defensive connectivity require the kind of chemistry that will remain a work in progress as Doncic and Irving reunite on the floor in the regular season. — Tim MacMahon


Kuminga on a hot streak with Green out

The buzzword throughout Golden State Warriors training camp has been “connectivity.” Through their first four preseason games, it looks like it fits. Sources within the organization told ESPN this is the most coherent the team has been in a while, both on and off the court.

The main driver has been Chris Paul. Although the sample has been quite small. Paul has looked comfortable playmaking while averaging 20.7 minutes and 8.3 points per game in four appearances. It’s still hard to know what Paul’s role will be — starting or coming off the bench — especially because Draymond Green has missed all of camp and the preseason because of an ankle injury. (Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Green is considered questionable for Tuesday’s opener against Phoenix.)

One silver lining of missing Green this preseason has been increased playing time for Jonathan Kuminga. The third-year forward has taken full advantage. Kuminga leads the league in total scoring (96 points) during the preseason and through four games is averaging 24 points per game.

There will still be adjustments to Kuminga’s role once Green returns to the lineup. But as it stands, Golden State believes it is in a good spot heading into the regular season. — Kendra Andrews


Harden turmoil hanging over squad with title hopes

There should be a lot of reasons for optimism around the Philadelphia 76ers. They have the league’s MVP in Joel Embiid, the guy who led the league in assists in James Harden, a precocious young guard in Tyrese Maxey, an elite 1-2 management combo in president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and coach Nick Nurse, and a roster full of versatile players.

Instead, there has been nonstop drama. Harden wants to be traded and has publicly called Morey a liar. Harden hasn’t played in a preseason game yet and skipped two practices for what the team called a personal matter.

Embiid hasn’t played yet, either, missing Monday’s win over Brooklyn because of an illness. This isn’t exactly where any team, let alone one with championship expectations, wants to be heading into a season.

But nothing is ever easy when it comes to the 76ers. And as long as the Harden drama is hanging over this team, it’s hard to see how Philadelphia will be able to focus on what it hopes can be a championship-winning season. — Tim Bontemps

play

1:45

Stephen A. calls on James Harden to grow up

Stephen A. Smith gives his thoughts on James Harden being a no-show at 76ers’ practice.


An elite six-man rotation on both sides of the court

There’ve been only brief glimpses of Boston’s top six guys — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Kristaps Porzingis and Al Horford — playing together en masse. But even in those small opportunities, it’s been clear that this team has a chance to be a devastating offensive machine.

All six players are legitimate threats from 3-point range. When they are spaced out beyond the 3-point line, there are semi-truck-size lanes for Boston’s perimeter players to attack off the dribble. Porzingis, in particular, offers an unstoppable lob threat, especially with that spacing the Celtics have created.

And, unlike some of their competition at the top of the league, that group also has a real chance to be elite defensively. There certainly are questions — durability, potential decline from Horford and depth behind those six players.

But the preseason has shown us that, if healthy, Boston has every reason to believe this group is capable of lifting it to the top. — Bontemps


After ‘Summer of Jokic,’ bench depth a worry for the champs?

Nikola Jokic’s summer of celebrating the Nuggets’ title gave us plenty of viral moments. But Jokic and the Nuggets didn’t stray too far from the gym this summer.

Jokic has been more vocal this preseason — an offseason challenge from coach Michael Malone — and the two-time MVP has looked good in limited minutes. The same goes for Jamal Murray, who has been challenged by Malone to become a first-time All-Star and All-NBA performer this season.

Michael Porter Jr. was slowed by an ankle injury, but the Nuggets believe the title-winning starting lineup that also includes Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remains the best in the league.

The question facing Denver is how will their new bench options look with Bruce Brown and Jeff Green gone? Christian Braun will have a bigger role, and the Nuggets are looking to Reggie Jackson to provide offense off the bench. Denver hopes Peyton Watson will be able to replace Brown’s impact, especially defensively, and rookie Julian Strawther has shined with his shooting in the preseason. — Ohm Youngmisuk


Amid Harden drama, Kawhi and George fully healthy

Despite the ongoing saga of whether James Harden would join from Philly, the vibes in Clippers camp have been perhaps the best of the Kawhi LeonardPaul George era.

Leonard and George entered camp in rare form — fully healthy with no restrictions. With coach Ty Lue pushing his players with a focus on defense and conditioning, the Clippers could feel a different energy in this camp.

Leonard and George were all business from the start with the Clippers in a pivotal prove-it season after falling in the first round with both players injured. “We’ve been having some sense of urgency,” Leonard said. “I feel like our intensity level has been a little bit better [than in the past] just by playing hard, even though it’s preseason.”

Russell Westbrook, in his first preseason with the Clippers, also has been establishing himself as a vocal leader. But the biggest question remains whether the Clippers can acquire Harden from the Sixers, although sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski this week that “a sizable gap” remains between the two sides. — Youngmisuk

play

2:00

Woj: Clippers are only team in play for James Harden

Adrian Wojnarowski breaks down the Clippers’ trade pursuit of James Harden and its ramifications.


Simmons aiming to thrive with no expectations

An intriguing question this offseason was whether Ben Simmons could remake himself into a productive NBA player. Through a few preseason games, at least, the answer is starting to take shape.

Simmons still has lots of offensive issues: He can’t shoot, has trouble at the free throw line and still looks hesitant at times attacking the basket. But, physically, he looks much better after back surgery, he’s pushing the pace in transition, setting up 3-point shots for his teammates and holding up defensively.

Brooklyn’s roster is well-suited to bring out the best in Simmons. It has a bunch of long, switchable defenders. It has a lot of 3-point shooters Simmons can kick out to after collapsing the defense — long one of his best attributes — or run with in transition. It’s a low-pressure situation on a team with low expectations, an environment where Simmons will get a chance to just play and see what he can turn himself back into.

It’s why Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said Monday that the only thing he wants to see from Simmons is a continued willingness to be aggressive, regardless of how many mistakes that creates. Simmons has shown so far that his offseason declaration that he can be this team’s point guard is valid. Now, he should get this season to see how much he can build on this start. — Bontemps

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