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10 storylines to monitor around NBA this season: Can 'old' Lakers win title? Will Knicks take next step?

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The NBA never lacks for news and talking points. Sometimes it can be tough to keep track of everything. To help prepare for the 2021-22 season ahead of Tuesday's opening night, we're breaking down all the top storylines and key questions to know.

How will the Ben Simmons situation play out?

The Ben Simmons-Philadelphia 76ers drama will remain under scrutiny all season — whether Simmons is traded or not. Simmons has reported to Philadelphia, but it doesn’t seem like the situation is salvageable. So, what do the Sixers do with Simmons until the trade they him, and when they do trade him, what kind of value can they get in return? The Sixers need to find a way to resolve this so it doesn’t derail their season.

Could James Harden (left) and Kevin Durant lead the Nets to an NBA title even if Kyrie Irving misses the entire season?
Could James Harden (left) and Kevin Durant lead the Nets to an NBA title even if Kyrie Irving misses the entire season?

Brooklyn waiting on Kyrie Irving — for now.

Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 will hover around the team, even if the Nets have done their best to minimize the potential for distraction by not allowing Irving to play or practice until he meets New York City’s vaccine mandate for players. Brooklyn still has a deep roster lead by two of the league’s best in Kevin Durant and James Harden. As long as they remain healthy, the Nets are a top championship contender without Irving. With him, they’re arguably the prohibitive favorite to win the title.

Can the Bucks repeat as champions?

Milwaukee is in a pretty good place for a defending champion — under the radar, drama-free and not favored to repeat. It’s relative calm. Coach Mike Budenholzer and general manager Jon Horst signed extensions and the core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are back with no contract issues. While the Bucks lost key players, they acquired Rodney Hood and Grayson Allen and can look forward to the eventual return of Donte DiVincenzo (recovering from injury). There’s no reason to think the Bucks won’t be in the hunt in late May.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are set up nicely for a run at another NBA championship.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are set up nicely for a run at another NBA championship.

Phoenix may be the class of the Western Conference.

After Chris Paul elevated the Suns to championship contender during his first season in Phoenix, they could be even better this year. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are among the best young players at their positions and getting better. They should be deeper and a bit more versatile. The Suns won’t catch anyone by surprise, but they have continuity, and there is enough uncertainty surrounding other West contenders that the No. 1 seed isn’t out of the question for Phoenix.

EAST PREVIEW: Team-by-team breakdown of the Eastern Conference

WEST PREVIEW: Team-by-team breakdown of the Western Conference

Can the Lakers figure it out in time to win another title?

More than any team in the league, the Lakers are focused more on process with the idea that their talent will win enough games to keep them near the top of the West standings. But there will be moments of greatness with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo, and there will be moments of struggle. It won’t be the first time a James-led team bobbed and weaved through a season. What matters most is how the Lakers are playing by the end of the season and their ability to win a championship.

The Knicks have a product worth watching.

There’s credit to go around, from the front office led by Leon Rose, the coaching staff led by Tom Thibodeau and the players led by Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett. If you believe the NBA is better when the Knicks are good and Madison Square Garden is alive, then this should be a fun season for you. With the addition of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, the Knicks will generate excitement. But will they generate enough wins to contend for the top spot in the East?

Chicago eyes playoff return after making win-now moves.

Chicago was one of the busiest teams this offseason, bringing in DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso after acquiring Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline in March. In a lineup with Zach LaVine, the Bulls potentially have a potent offense that should be fun to watch. But expectations have been raised, and the Bulls’ chances of getting back to the playoffs will likely come down to how much defense they can play.

Will Damian Lillard still be a Blazer at the end of the season?

Front-office executives who seek an All-NBA point guard will follow Portland’s start to the season. Damian Lillard has expressed his desire to compete for a championship, and the Blazers have tried to assemble a roster that can do that. But it’s extremely difficult in the West. While Lillard has not officially asked for a trade, if the Blazers start poorly or fall far behind too early in the season, teams will begin making serious inquiries on Lillard’s availability in a trade.

STEPPING UP: Six NBA players with the most to prove this season

X-FACTORS: Seven players who could swing the championship race

Atlanta could be a budding Eastern Conference powerhouse.

In a league flush with young talent, Atlanta may have the NBA’s best young core. It will be difficult to duplicate last season’s run to the conference finals; the East is deeper, and the Hawks won’t sneak up on anyone this year. But Trae Young and company are set up to be contenders for the foreseeable future with a deep, versatile roster that should continue to get better. And Nate McMillan is back for his first full season as coach when his biggest problem may be finding minutes for everyone.

Young coaches finally get their chance to lead.

There are seven new coaches on the sideline this season, including five first-time head coaches: Ime Udoka in Boston, Chauncey Billups in Portland, Wes Unseld Jr. in Washington, Willie Green in New Orleans and Jamahl Mosley in Orlando. Udoka and Billups are taking over playoff contenders, as are Indiana’s Rick Carlisle and Dallas’ Jason Kidd, who gets a second chance to coach a budding superstar in Luka Doncic after things didn’t work out with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.

Follow Matt Eppers @meppers_ and Jeff Zillgitt @JeffZillgitt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The 10 biggest NBA storylines worth monitoring this season