Ben Simmons’ drama, Klay Thompson’s injury and COVID-19 concerns: The 10 biggest questions entering NBA training camp

Can you hear the sounds? The basketballs bouncing. The new sneakers squeaking against the floor. The strange media day questions that absolutely baffle the folks sitting in front of the microphone.

After a brief break, another NBA season is nearly here with training camps officially beginning on Tuesday. For the most part, teams around the league have completed all of their major pieces of business — with one notable exception that could loom large in the coming weeks.

OFFSEASON GRADES: Eastern Conference | Western Conference

Actually, let’s use that as the jumping-off point as we run through the biggest NBA training camp questions. To Philadelphia we go!

1. What happens with Ben Simmons and the 76ers?

Yes, that guy. Simmons is still a member of the 76ers, but he has already declared that he will not be reporting for the start of training camp and doesn’t plan to play another game for the franchise, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Sixers coach Doc Rivers, meanwhile, is holding out hope that Simmons will rejoin the team after he did some (very late) damage control regarding his comments following Philly’s Game 7 loss against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Putting all of the reports and rumors aside, one simple fact remains: There is no obvious trade that works for both Simmons and the 76ers. Teams are heading into training camps feeling optimistic, not desperate. That leaves both sides in the same staring contest that has been going on for months.

If Simmons does follow through on his pledge to avoid camp, will Philadelphia ease up on its demands and entertain an offer it had previously rejected? If the Sixers start taking away some of Simmons’ money, will he change his tune? Brace yourselves. This could get ugly.

2. How long until Klay Thompson returns?

As of Friday, the Warriors have the fourth-best championship odds behind only the Nets, Lakers and Bucks, per FanDuel. They’re ahead of the Jazz, the No. 1 overall seed in the 2021 NBA playoffs, and the Suns, the team that came two wins short of the title.

Golden State’s legitimacy as a championship contender will largely depend on the performance of Thompson, who hasn’t played in a game since the 2019 NBA Finals. The Warriors have indicated that Thompson’s return will likely come in December, but there have been positive signs from his offseason workouts.

“I do know that watching him every day on the court, he’s really moving well. He’s in good shape. He’s happy,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr told The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami. “He’s excited to be back out on the floor with the guys. The light is finally at the end of the tunnel, and I keep thinking about that moment where he steps out onto [the floor] at [Chase Center] for the first time, it’s going to be so emotional.

“You think about everything Klay means to this franchise, what he means to our fan base and what he has gone through the last two years just to get to this stage. He’s finally on the cusp, and he feels it. You can see it in his walk. He’s excited, and he’s getting close.”

3. Will vaccination status impact player availability?

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Speaking of the Warriors, what are they going to do with Andrew Wiggins? The Golden State forward, who averaged 18.6 points in 71 games last season, remains unvaccinated, and it doesn’t seem as though he will be backing down from his stance.

The Warriors have reportedly grown concerned about Wiggins’ availability because local guidelines in San Francisco, where the Chase Center is located, will prevent Golden State players from entering their home arena for games unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption. Even if the league grants Wiggins a religious exemption, the city of San Francisco could override that ruling.

Brooklyn and New York will be wrestling with the same policies. Fox Sports’ Yaron Weitzman reported Thursday that Kyrie Irving has not yet gotten vaccinated, but the Nets guard was recently spotted sitting courtside at the Staples Center for a WNBA game. The Staples Center policy at the time required fans sitting courtside to be vaccinated.

The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that 90 percent of NBA players are fully vaccinated. The few remaining holdouts may join the majority when faced with the possibility of missing games and paychecks, but the situations in those cities specifically will be worth monitoring.

4. Will the Lakers lead the league in positive training camp vibes?

LeBron James is now “The Slim King.” Anthony Davis is looking jacked. Russell Westbrook came home. Carmelo Anthony has finally teamed up with James. Dwight Howard was on “The Masked Singer,” for some reason. (He’s no Victor Oladipo.)

Then there’s the team bonding in Vegas.

Just straight vibing out in LA, bro.

5. Are Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis on the same page?

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The Doncic-Porzingis dynamic has been, let’s say, a little rocky at times. Porzingis has reportedly been frustrated with his role in Dallas and felt like more of a role player than a co-star next to Doncic. Not ideal for the Mavericks.

However, there is some good news. During an appearance on “The Hoop Collective” podcast, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon noted that Porzingis’ feelings about the franchise have changed in part because he is fully healthy and will be working under a new coach in Jason Kidd.

“At the end of last year, he wasn’t going to come out and ask for a trade,” MacMahon said. “He’s smart enough to understand the optics. … But by the end of last year when he stood in the corner and checked the wind for an entire playoff series, he was hoping that he would be traded. From what I gather, he’s coming back optimistic now.”

At 22 years old, Doncic is already an MVP-caliber player who can carry an offense, but even someone as talented as Doncic needs help in order for his team to go beyond one-and-done in the NBA playoffs. The Mavericks’ most obvious pathway to becoming a serious threat in the Western Conference is Porzingis rediscovering his old form and learning how to complement Doncic.

6. What is Zion Williamson’s relationship with the Pelicans?

As SN’s Micah Adams wrote in his offseason grades, the Pelicans are following the same blueprint that led to Anthony Davis’ exit. Williamson has been electric in his two seasons with the Pels, but the team has won 61 total games in that span and failed to reach the playoffs in either season.

To make matters worse, New Orleans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin’s tenure has been a mess so far, as detailed in an extensive report from Christian Clark of NOLA.com. Multiple staffers are not huge Griffin supporters — some grew to “actively dislike” him, per Clark — and he has failed to build a solid relationship with Williamson.

The most likely scenario remains Williamson signing an extension with the Pelicans. Williamson could take the qualifying offer, but he would be leaving so much money on the table. No one has ever made that bold move before.

Even if that is how negotations eventually play out, though, it’s clear that the Pels have a lot of work to do in order to convince Williamson that staying in New Orleans long-term is the best option.

7. Is Damian Lillard still happy in Portland?

Lillard will be in a Trail Blazers uniform to start the 2021-22 season. Beyond that, well, hmmm…

The six-time All-Star has always been straightforward about his desires. He wants to bring a championship to Portland. (He has even talked to CJ McCollum about the parade route.) His passion for the team and city is admirable.

But what did the Trail Blazers do this offseason to give their fans confidence that this group can rise from good to elite? This is largely the same group returning for another run at… the first round?

It would be a tremendous story if Lillard stayed in Portland and hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy while the Moda Center crowd cheered in joy. It’s just hard to envision how that dream becomes a reality.

8. Can the Timberwolves be normal for a few minutes?

Uh, yikes. The Timberwolves parted ways with president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas only days before the start of training camp. Karl-Anthony Towns’ reaction said it all.

Look, Minnesota was not suddenly going to emerge as a contender with Rosas as the lead decision-maker, but this continues what has been a brutal stretch of dysfunction within the organization. The Timberwolves are aiming for consistency and respectability. Not there yet, gang!

9. Are the Heat really good enough to make noise in the Eastern Conference?

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After a surprising run to the 2020 NBA Finals in the Florida “bubble,” the Heat had an up-and-down 2020-21 regular season. They then got torched by the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. You just knew Pat Riley wouldn’t be quiet during the offseason.

Miami acquired Kyle Lowry as part of a sign-and-trade deal with Toronto and picked up veteran forwards P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris in free agency. The Heat should be an all-time pain-in-the-butt team because of their toughness and tenacity.

Are the Heat more than just a tough out for the Nets or Bucks, though? It seems Miami is a tier below those two in the East, but it wouldn’t be crazy if everything clicks into place for Erik Spoelstra’s squad.

10. Which new head coaches are under the most pressure?

Chauncey Billups (Trail Blazers) should be at the top of the list here given the Lillard situation, but he won’t be alone in feeling a little heat almost immediately.

Wes Unseld Jr. (Wizards) will have the cloud of Bradley Beal’s free agency hanging over him, and Kidd (Mavericks) and Willie Green (Pelicans) will need to build strong bonds with their stars. The honeymoon phase could be short if those teams struggle out of the gates.

Hey, as Monty Williams so eloquently put it, “Pressure is a privilege.”

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