Every NBA Team's Biggest Question Mark
Neither the 1986 Boston Celtics nor the 1996 Chicago Bulls were flawless. All teams have their problems. No matter how well a team plays in the regular season, there are always question marks—until there aren't.
We have yet to get beyond that point with any team this year, however.
These are the biggest question marks right now for every team in the NBA.
The Atlanta Hawks are the best team in the NBA that nobody is talking about. Currently third in the Eastern Conference, they are just two-and-a-half games behind the Miami Heat in the Southeast Division.
One thing that continues to separate them from the elite, however, is their insistence on shooting long jump shots that they just don't make often enough. Really, the whole team is guilty of what Josh Smith is so maligned for: taking too many long twos.
The question for the Hawks is whether or not they can get good shots against good defenses.
Another negative result of their launch-from-deep strategy is that it leads to few free throws and few offensive boards. Overall, this saps the potency out of a team that has a lot of excellent scorers.
Teams like the New York Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs have similar issues, but their shooters are just much more accurate. Thus, they are less "issues" and more understandable trade-offs.
Neither of those teams have Al Horford and Josh Smith in the paint either. And given that the Hawks shoot better than every team but the Heat from inside five feet, it seems more a question of will rather than ability.
Are the Boston Celtics even good? They can get to the line and are pretty decent on the defensive glass, but they basically do everything else at a league-average rate.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Celtics are 13-13.
We have seen this middling start to the season before. Just last year, in fact. But with another year on the odometer, who's to say that the team can just turn it on again?
Teams like the Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks are good enough to take them to overtime. Is there any doubt that the league's elite would have their way with a team that is getting by on reputation alone?
The biggest question for the Brooklyn Nets right now is whether or not Avery Johnson will be coaching this team by the end of the year. The team is underperforming, and if it continues to do so, the calls for him to be axed will multiply by the day.
How good the players under contract actually are is worth debating, but it isn't all that productive. The team is beyond salary-capped out, and that will not change for years to come.
The roster is what it is, and nothing aside from minor tweaks are realistic possibilities right now. Thus, if the team doesn't start to improve, it will have to consider making the one move it can: finding a new coach.
Such discussion may seem premature—and it probably is. The team had been playing just fine this year as long as Brook Lopez was on the court. But after three straight losses (two of which featured double-doubles by Lopez) and curious quotes from the team captain, the responsibility for ongoing mediocrity will ultimately fall to the coach.
The Charlotte Bobcats' start to the season was encouraging. They jumped out to a 6-4 record and soon had won as many games in November, seven, as they did all of last season.
Then reality set in.
Now, Charlotte has lost its last 15 games. Because, as owners of the league's worst defense, the Bobcats cannot stop anybody.
In all but one of those instances, their opponent has scored at least 100 points.
Until they figure out a way to keep teams from running up the score, they might be stuck on seven wins for another month.
Derrick Rose's health is far and away this team's biggest question mark.
Even without Rose, the Chicago Bulls sit atop the Central Division. If the playoffs started today, they would have home-court advantage in the first round, and their defense is as suffocating as ever (third best in the NBA).
To most onlookers, it seemed as though this would be a lost season in the Windy City. It might still be. Who knows how well Rose will be capable of playing when—and if—he returns this year?
But if the team is still well above .500 and looking like it could avoid Miami until the second round, there is no reason that the Bulls couldn't beat any other team in the East.
The bench is weak, and Luol Deng and Joakim Noah (the only two players in the NBA averaging more than 40 MPG) are playing way too many minutes. Still, Rose is that good. If he returns and looks just like his old self, it could provide an emotional lift that carries the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' biggest issue is talent. Kyrie Irving is All-World, and Anderson Varejao should make the All-Star team, but other than that, everyone is a question mark.
Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters are likely fine NBA rotation players, but there isn't much else to get excited about.
For most teams, it takes a lot bad strategy and bad execution to be so bad on both ends of the court. The Cavs, however, do it easily.
The focus for Byron Scott must be teaching good habits. With so many mediocre players occupying the roster, it is imperative to play the right way. When the half-court offense seems incapable of creating good looks, players like Waiters resort to talent to create bad shots. Really, a fadeaway from 17 feet by him might be the best shot the team can produce on any given play.
No team can develop players that way, however.
Trying to let young players improve amid bad execution will be the biggest hurdle for Cleveland this season.
Dirk Nowitzki's return is the only storyline to follow in Dallas.
The "good" news is that he is back on the practice court and working himself back into shape. From ESPN:
All things considered...Nowitzki was pleased with his first day of full basketball work since mid-October.
“I thought I played decent,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously, my legs are pretty shot. For the first time running and shooting and jumping, so it’s going to take awhile for me to get back in halfway game shape. You can run in the pool and do some elliptical all you want, but it’s not like a 7-foot guy, 250, leaning on you, pushing around and you still got to make a move and jump and then concentrate to make a shot."
The "bad" news is that he hasn't been played a single game this season, and the Mavs might be well below .500 by the time returns. If that is the case, there may be no benefit from him suiting up this season at all.
Which is what makes the terms "good" and "bad" up for interpretation.
The Mavericks' future will be decided in the offseason, not the postseason. They may have some $16 million to spend on the open market and need both a complementary star to Nowitzki and a young talent infusion to provide a bridge to the post-Dirk era.
Looking at the rest of the West, the Mavericks don't stand much of a chance in the this year's playoffs anyway. So the only real point of Nowitzki's return may be to knock off the rust.
Well, that and ensuring Dallas gets a worse draft pick in June.
The Denver Nuggets can't shoot. They can't make mid-range shots. They can't make threes. They can't make free throws. They have had historically bad nights shooting.
They can run, make layups and grab offensive boards, however. These factors alone have, unbelievably, created the league's seventh-best offense.
Imagine if they could hit a jumper.
Some of the problem is simply players missing shots. Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson have generally been high-level three-point shooters during their careers, but both are making nothing this season.
Unfortunately, there is nobody else take up the slack.
Corey Brewer is shooting OK, and Andre Iguodala hit his treys last year, but neither are the marksmen a team wants launching a ton of jumpers.
Some improvements can be expected internally, but the front office really needs to acquire an assassin for this team to cure what ails it.
The Detroit Pistons, oddly enough, have more answers than they do questions. In Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, they have two excellent young big men. And in Brandon Knight and Kyle Singler, they probably have two perimeter players worth discussing as well.
Thus, their questions revolve less around finding good players and more around how to get rid of the players they don't want.
Tayshaun Prince and, especially, Charlie Villanueva have probably worn out their welcome. Meanwhile, Rodney Stuckey certainly has no place in this franchise's future.
It is time to make some moves and clear all the space—both literal and in a salary cap sense–for the players of the future.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are over-achieving in almost every way. The backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson represents one of the deadliest shooting duos in recent memory. Neither has been as accurate as expected overall throughout the year, but the fear both induce is real.
Meanwhile, without Andrew Bogut, their interior also seems like a lineup few should fear. But they have combined to become the best defensive rebounding team in the league.
Some of it is David Lee cleaning the glass better than he has since he left New York. But as with the shooting prowess, much of it is just a team-wide approach. Players like Jarrett Jack, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green are simply doing their part.
As a result, the team has become better than the sum of its parts.
The only question, then, is if this same Three Musketeer performance can be sustainable.
The Houston Rockets have won four of their last five—by an average margin of more than 13 points—and only have three players on the roster older than 25. With a max-salary star leading the charge, the franchise looks to be on its best footing since the injury-riddled Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady era unceremoniously came to an end.
This year, they probably eek out a playoff berth, win two games in a series against the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs and spend the summer fishing.
While doing so, however, the team can answer its biggest current roster question: How good are its big men?
Patrick Patterson, Greg Smith and Marcus Morris have each had stretches of excellent play early this season. It seems unlikely that, in a few years when the roster is more fully developed, all three will still be employed by Houston.
A team with James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin on the perimeter will be attempting to infuse its frontcourt with a star.
That player may be Josh Smith, Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol.
But regardless of the name on the back of the jersey, he will push these lesser talents closer to the back of the rotation. Which of three makes the most sense to try to keep long term and develop into a supersub? Or, which of the three makes the most sense to use as a trade asset?
That valuation needs to be made over the next few months as Daryl Morey decides which elephant he wants to go big-game hunting for.
The Indiana Pacers are finally beginning to right the ship after spending the first six weeks of the season spinning their wheels. David West is playing like an All-Star, George Hill has scored 15 of more points in eight straight games and Paul George is now fulfilling his potential to be one of the most dynamic, versatile two-way players in the NBA.
All is well—except for the bench.
Outside of Ian Mahinmi, who is a solid if limited contributor, coach Frank Vogel lacks a single reserve he can consistently count on.
D.J. Augustin was so bad in the early going that he lost his job to Ben Hansbrough (who has played well, but not in enough minutes to convince anyone he is a long-term solution). Gerald Green has looked lost on the court and been an inconsistent contributor. Tyler Hansbrough can be helpful, but he plays outside of the system to the degree that it is often disruptive to team concepts. And Sam Young is a train wreck offensively.
When Danny Granger returns—pushing Lance Stephenson back to the bench—it may help. Stephenson has generally played well this year, and his strengths should be further magnified when he is not playing alongside other good scorers.
The team must find a way to get better production from its bench, however. Unfortunately, lacking any major trade assets (other than those it considers core roster components), it is difficult to determine how the Pacers should upgrade. The improvement will either need to come from within (looking at you, Green) or via an unheralded acquisition.
If nobody on the roster improves—and soon—the front office must get creative to find a diamond in the rough. Somehow. Somewhere.
Los Angeles Clippers
Which perimeter players will the Los Angeles Clippers rely on during the playoffs? The postseason is still more than 50 games away, but this is the question mark that coach Vinny Del Negro needs to start thinking about now.
Chris Paul does—and should—lead the team in minutes per game, but Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, Eric Bledsoe and Willie Green are all averaging between 18 and 30 minutes per night. A seven-man rotation on the perimeter is overkill in the regular season. But in the playoffs? It would be downright silly.
Whether Del Negro bases his decision on production, gives minutes to the best defenders or just draws straws, he needs to start thinking more seriously about what this team's rotation will actually look like when minutes become more scarce in the playoffs.
Having too many players capable of contributing is a good problem to have.
But it is still a problem.
Los Angeles Lakers
What isn't a question mark for the Los Angeles Lakers? Just Kobe Bryant's offense at this point. Everything else is being questioned every day in headlines of media outlets both big and small.
The worst problem, however, is the team's defense.
Statistically, it isn't that that bad; the Lakers are league average in most relevant categories. Systematically, however, the team defense often breaks down.
Steve Nash's return and Pau Gasol's improvement should help the team get back above .500. But neither will be a panacea to Los Angeles' defensive struggles, which include everything from effort to positioning to cohesion to personnel.
So, it is the tactical adjustments and systemic changes that coach Mike D'Antoni implements that will define whether or not the Lakers can fix their biggest weakness.
The thing most likely to derail the Memphis Grizzlies this season may be buying into their own hype. They started this season playing so well that it would be hard for any outcome, save for winning 70 games, to be a shock.
But their recent slowdown makes you question whether or not they believed the whole year would be as easy as the first month seemed. They seem to have thus eased off from the relentless interior attack that makes them such a difficult matchup.
The first bit of evidence is the Grizzlies' shot selection.
Despite going 6-4 in December, more of their shot attempts have come from outside of five feet compared to November, according to NBA.com, as the team increasingly settles for long twos. Perhaps even more detrimental to the offense is that a larger percentage of the team's made field goals have been unassisted, which is indicative of more isolation plays.
As a result, the team's shooting has plummeted. After shooting 45.0 percent and winning 12 of 13 games in November, the team-wide accuracy has fallen to just 42.6 percent this month. Much of this has been due to its errant long-range shooting, which has fallen from a sniper-like 39.3 percent to 34.9 percent in December.
Mike Conley and Rudy Gay have been the main culprits.
They have shot 36.5 percent and 40.8 percent from the field, respectively, on 10.7 and 16.9 shots per game in December. Gay's 22.6 percent shooting from behind the arc has been especially atrocious this month. Worst of all is that it is coming on 3.4 three-point attempts per night, compared to just 3.3 free-throw attempts a game.
This is representative of a recent team-wide indifference to getting to the line.
Gay is down from 4.4 free-throw attempts per game in November to that 3.4 number in December. Zach Randolph's attempts have fallen from 4.4 to 3.8. Marc Gasol has been the worst offender of all, dropping from 5.7 to 3.3.
In all, the Grizzlies have gone from shooting 23.9 free throws per game to just 19.2.
Put all these numbers together, and this is a team that is much less discerning about how it plays offense than it was at the start of the season. It is a team that is going through the motions more than asserting its physical will on the opponent.
And that's just not going to do.
The Grizzlies must get back to attacking the paint and using their physicality to their advantage if they want to be the rare starless team that makes the NBA Finals.
LeBron James is the best player alive.
As long as he continues his career-long streak of never getting hurt, the Miami Heat will be fine.
Miami showed last postseason that it can beat almost any team, even without Chris Bosh at his healthiest.
So James staying healthy is really the only prerequisite for this team reaching its regular-season potential.
The major question for the Milwaukee Bucks is whether or not two shot-happy guards can coexist. If they can, the team can thrive.
Obviously, the team needs to get better offensively regardless.
But some of that is the product of a roster that simply doesn't include many offensively adept big men. As Ersan Ilyasova continues to revert to normal form, however, the team will gain a much better understanding of what it has to work with. And that is a pair of guards who shoot a lot and score well, if not uber-efficiently.
But that was a part of the plan.
It's hard to blame Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings for being Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings; the team simply needs to accommodate their style of play and ensure that the frontcourt is efficient enough to make up for the perimeter's shortcomings.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are on the precipice of being an excellent basketball team. We saw Thursday night what they can do when they are playing really well.
Now, we have to wonder whether or not they can play that well regularly. Consistency is the question for a team full of players who have rarely played together.
Ricky Rubio is the straw that stirs the drink, but he is still relatively new to the NBA. Kevin Love will get you 20/15 just by stepping on the court, but will his otherworldly stats translate when he is playing on a team that is expected to not just compete but win?
Will Andrei Kirilenko's versatility provide the extra bump toward the upper echelon that this team needs? Can Alexey Shved be the dynamic talent they need to separate the Wolves from the other middling Western Conference teams?
So many questions. But, really, just one: Is this combination of players, now that they're healthy, ready to compete with the elite in the West?
New Orleans Hornets
How good will Eric Gordon be when he plays again?
Of course he will play well. But when? And how well?
Until we get the answer to those questions, discussing anything about the future of the New Orleans Hornets seems foolish. Anthony Davis is a phenom. Ryan Anderson can thrive in a world without Dwight Howard. Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez are legit players.
But the Hornets are a really bad basketball team. And until we see what Gordon can contribute, nothing else matters.
New York Knicks
After watching the New York Knicks play such beautiful basketball so far this season, it's hard to envision many scenarios in which the team could stumble. Amar'e Stoudemire's return to the rotation is one, however.
It isn't that Stoudemire is the type of ball-stopping scorer you worry about destroying the team's ball movement. It's just that this team has been orchestrating such a pretty brand of offense this season with the current roster and that proper spacing can be a delicate balance of forces that are hard to pin down.
Further complicating matters is the impending return of Iman Shumpert, who is not exactly Peja Stojakovic on the wing. His 18.2 usage rate isn't off-the-charts high, but he does use a fair number of possessions in a manner that doesn't dovetail with the current team-centric strategy of pass-and-attack.
If coach Mike Woodson can integrate both players into the system, this already-deadly team will become even scarier. But if the timing and rotations are pushed askew even a little bit, a team that is currently on top of the world may fall back to earth.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook's shot selection has been the major question mark for this team for years. That fact hasn't changed, especially since he is shooting as poorly as he has since his rookie season while taking a career-high number of three-pointers per game.
When you win 12 straight games, problems naturally fall to the wayside. But in the playoffs, Westbrook simply has to shoot better if this team wants to do what it couldn't last year: win a title.
That process can't start on day one of the postseason, however. He must begin now to cut down on his long-range attempts and improve his focus at the rim, where his shooting percentage has fallen to 51.4 percent this year after he made 58.6 percent last season.
Jacque Vaughn appears to be a coach worth keeping around. The Orlando Magic lack the talent of most of their Southeast Division foes, but in Vaughn, the team may have a leader for the future.
A dozen years ago, this team also had a coach who helped a terrible roster overachieve. That was Doc Rivers. In fact, he did such a good job that he was rewarded with a Coach of the Year award.
I'm not sure Vaughn deserves such acclaim, but his ability to convince his team that it can win any game shows that, at least thus far in 2012-13, he has been a true leader of men.
As the year continues, this will be the key for the Magic franchise—proving that they have found the next coach to lead the team into a new era.
Andrew Bynum is the NBA's biggest enigma, so there can really be no debate about what is the biggest question mark for the Philadelphia 76ers. This season, the team is floating in the wind with no real direction, and nothing will be determined until Bynum's fate is.
Sure, the team will have some good wins and some bad losses. But its future depends way too much upon the knees of Andrew Bynum. Until we know the true extent of the damages to his ligaments, it will be hard to have any true understanding of what the 76ers should do next.
The Phoenix Suns may be the most listless team in the NBA. They are stuck in a purgatory between the playoffs and rebuilding that has decimated all interest in their season.
They have interesting pieces, though.
Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley and Goran Dragic are all players that could thrive on teams with a future. They should be on playoff teams, but as it stands, they are simply players who are preventing the Suns from being truly bad.
There is nothing that should prevent the Suns from trading such players for any assets they can acquire, however. But here we are, watching the team play boring, mediocre basketball as it tries its hardest to be the 10th-best team in the West.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trailblazers have no bench. The team's starting five has generally been solid, but no reserves have stepped up to become consistent options.
Generally, no matter how shallow the talent pool, somebody will emerge as a player to watch. But not with the Trailblazers.
Luke Babbitt has had his moments, and Meyers Leonard has not always looked terrible, but that is about the best you can say. Otherwise, the bench has been an absolute mess.
Will fans continue to show up to Sacramento Kings games? Tom Couzens of the Sacramento Bee recently framed the debate well:
Sacramento sports fans are caught in a Catch-22 when it comes to the Kings and the Maloofs.
Go to games: Put money in the pockets of owners who might soon break your heart and move the team to another city.
Don't go to games: Contribute to the owners' possible argument that they have no choice but to leave since Sacramento isn't supporting the team.
Apparently, rapper Rick Ross is a fan, but the number of others who will show their allegiance to the Kings by showing up to games is dwindling. Only Detroit draws fewer fans per night among NBA teams.
In some ways, it's hard to blame them. The team can neither score nor stop their opponent from scoring. If that isn't reason enough to stay away, the team's best player, DeMarcus Cousins, has been suspended for the third time this season—once for verbally sparring with San Antonio Spurs broadcaster Sean Elliot, once for hitting Dallas Mavericks' guard O.J. Mayo in the groin, and, most recently, suspended indefinitely after getting in an argument with coach Keith Smart during halftime of Friday's loss to the Clippers.
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs are 20-8 overall this season, but just 2-2 in games without Manu Ginobili. Worse still, in the six losses he has played in, Ginobili shot has just 36.4 percent (20-for-55), according to NBA.com.
The conclusion is simple: To win, the Spurs need Ginobili to play well.
This was equally true last year in the regular season (Ginobili shot 53.4 percent in wins, 43.8 percent in losses), and it means that keeping him healthy and productive is the highest priority for San Antonio going forward.
Tim Duncan is playing as well as he has in years, Tony Parker is his typical high-efficiency self, Kawhi Leonard is set to return soon, Tiago Splitter finally appears to be a productive member of society, and the three-point barrage alone can win the Spurs any given game.
But Ginobili is not fully healthy, and until he is, this team probably won't be able to beat the other elite teams in the league.
How do you solve a problem like Andrea Bargnani?
Bargnani's career as a Toronto Raptor has run its course. There is no longer room for him in a crowded, talented frontcourt, and his continued presence on the roster is only going to further hinder the development of his teammates.
Unfortunately, Bargnani has been injured for most of the past two weeks, and it's very hard to trade an injured player. For now, the Raptors must wait.
But figuring out how to move past this failed era needs to be the team's priority. GM Bryan Colangelo's biggest question is how to do that.
Who do the Utah Jazz build around?
The frontcourt is full of talent, but should the team be based around the proven veterans (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap) or the young bigs with potential (Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter)?
For various reasons, Favors and Kanter are the obvious choice.
They are much cheaper now, and neither is up for new contracts this summer. Jefferson and Millsap, on the other hand, may both walk at the end of the year.
For a team like Utah, which may make the playoffs but is unlikely to advance to the second round, dealing the older, more expensive players now seems the best course.
The question then becomes, what can they get in return?
The only question mark in the nation's capital is everything. Namely, the question that Washington Wizards fans should be asking the front office is this: What in God's name are you people doing?
The only two players whose numbers look decent are Nene and Kevin Seraphin.
Otherwise? The whole roster is one big yikes.
Fifteen of four-year vet A.J. Price's 18 career starts have come this season, as he has shot 36.6 percent. Jordan Crawford and Bradley Beal, who are shooting 33.0 percent and 30.5 percent, respectively, from three-point range this season are combining to launch nine treys per game. Earl Barron started a game the other night.
Really, what is happening here?
Why are they continuing to charge admission to games?