Biggest Question Every NBA Title Contender Must Answer in 2013
As the NBA season stands today, a handful of teams have emerged as serious title contenders. But fans of those teams should know that championships never come on a silver platter.
Even the best teams have major flaws, and ignoring them won't help matters at all. Each must be addressed, lest the fans finish the season disappointed.
For example, what's happened to the Miami Heat's defense? After locking down every opponent last season, their defense has crumbled in 2012-13, specifically in the rebounding department.
In the case of the New York Knicks, are they for real or is this fine play going to stop once Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert return from injury?
Regardless of the answer, each contending team must ask that question.
Memphis Grizzlies: Can Improvement Continue Without True Bench Spark?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Memphis has continued to show improvement over the past two seasons. Its defense this season has been incredible. Not only do the Grizzlies rank 10th in rebounding, but they also rank second in points allowed per game.
On offense, however, Memphis could use some work. Head coach Lionel Hollins relies a bit too much on his starters, as the team has no true sixth man or spark off the bench. The second unit is full of serviceable backups like Jerryd Bayless and Marreese Speights, but there is no player who can step in and take over in the event of a star getting injured.
The closest thing Memphis has to a sixth-man spark is Quincy Pondexter, who only averages 6.6 points and 22.8 minutes off the bench. GM Chris Wallace must try to acquire either another star-like player or Hollins must further develop his bench.
Otherwise, Memphis' lack of depth will have it on the outside looking in on the NBA Finals once again.
Atlanta Hawks: Can Team Succeed Without a Pure Scorer?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Last season, the Hawks continued to play well thanks to a balanced attack and depth off the bench. Then GM Danny Ferry chose to trade scorer Joe Johnson over the summer. It was a good move financially, but the starting lineup lost 18.8 points per game.
Atlanta has still played well this season, but Devin Harris has proven to be a disappointment at shooting guard. Lou Williams does a good job at the position coming off the bench, but he can't score in bunches the way Johnson did.
This leaves Josh Smith as the Hawks' go-to guy on offense, and he has answered the bell, averaging a respectable 16.4 points per game. This is down from 18.8 points last season. But keep in mind that Smith's greatest strength is his ability to be explosive on offense and defense. As much as Atlanta needs him on offense, he can't sacrifice his defense just for the sake of scoring more points.
Granted, Atlanta is third in the Eastern Conference and not struggling to maintain pace, but Ferry needs to make at least one change. He must either make Williams the full-time shooting guard or trade for a cheaper option who can produce on the same level as Johnson.
If neither move happens, Atlanta will continue to be a team that has what it takes to win it all, yet only gets so far in the postseason.
Los Angeles Clippers: Can Lob City Take the Next Step?
Chris Chambers/Getty Images
The Clippers surprised everyone last season by not just making the playoffs, but advancing to the second round. Chris Paul injected a great deal of life into a lineup so used to losing, and the Clippers have continued to improve this season as he runs the point.
The team is on a 13-game winning streak and owns the second-best record in the NBA, standing just a half-game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference.
However, as good as the Clippers are, their offense is just a bit one-dimensional. More often than not, the team lives up to the name "Lob City" and scores points courtesy of a Paul lob to dunker extraordinaire Blake Griffin.
That isn't to say that the Clippers absolutely won't win a title. Jamal Crawford is an excellent spark off the bench, and Paul and Caron Butler do their fair share of scoring as well. DeAndre Jordan also provides solid defense in the middle, making Los Angeles a well-rounded team that goes into every game with a great chance to win.
Come playoff time, however, it is all about depth, experience and versatility. The Clippers definitely have the first two, but their versatility is a big question mark.
Down the stretch, it will be interesting to see if they can keep up this high level of play.
San Antonio Spurs: When Does the Fountain of Youth Run Dry?
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Per usual, the Spurs are playing great basketball. Unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with the rejuvenated Tim Duncan, who is having a great season at age 36. The four-time champion is averaging 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.
San Antonio is also getting good production out of 30-year-old Tony Parker, and 35-year-old Manu Ginobili is still a reliable man off the bench. Anybody starting to see a pattern here?
Look, as great as another Spurs championship season would be, it's going to be tough for the team to accomplish with such a veteran lineup. Granted, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are starting to step up in their own right, but coach Gregg Popovich still looks to his old dogs to help bring home the bacon.
With plenty of season left to go, the question presents itself: How long will it be before the veterans start to tire?
San Antonio may have made the Western Conference Finals last season, but everyone is a year older now. Believe it or not, that matters down the stretch and must be addressed accordingly.
Miami Heat: What to Do About the Defense?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Heat have played well this season, but there has been no sense of urgency when they play defense. As a result, the team ranks 15th in points allowed (compared to fourth last season) and is also the second-worst rebounding team in the league.
This may have something to do with head coach Erik Spoelstra choosing to start Chris Bosh (pictured) at center, which is not a bad idea since Bosh is actually a decent defender and has the size for the position at 6'11", 235 pounds. However, Bosh plays more like a scoring power forward and likes to utilize his jump shot rather than just stay under the basket and do work in the paint.
As a result, Miami has struggled against teams with pure defensive centers or just top frontcourt players, with two blowout losses to the New York Knicks as well as close losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors.
They have looked better as of late, but the Heat need to right the ship on defense. The team is just too good and talented to be on autopilot following a championship season, and thus must figure out how to perform better on defense.
Los Angeles Lakers: Is Steve Nash the End-All, Be-All Savior?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The Lakers have gotten off to a rough start. Mike Brown's failed Princeton offense led to a 1-4 start, and the team is still adjusting to new coach Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun game.
The Lakers' greatest loss, however, was new point guard Steve Nash. He suffered a non-displaced fracture of his left leg in the team's second game of the season and only just returned to the lineup on December 22.
It can be argued that Los Angeles can now reach its full potential, since D'Antoni's system heavily depends on an effective point guard. However, do the Lakers really need Nash to be title contenders?
I, for one, strongly disagree. As valuable as Nash is, the Lakers need two more things to happen before they can even think about a championship: Pau Gasol must fully adapt to his role in D'Antoni's offense, and Kobe Bryant must be willing to share the ball.
Yes, Bryant is the unquestioned star and leader of the Lakers, but D'Antoni's system relies on team play for its success. That won't happen if Bryant is shooting the ball willy-nilly and not sticking to the plan.
Granted, this has yet to become a problem with Nash running the point, and for all we know, it never will be. It is just something that Lakers management and fans should be wary of as the season progresses.
Nash definitely will help the team to improve as a whole, but to say that he is the ultimate savior is a bit farfetched.
Then again, he knows D'Antoni's system well, so who knows? Perhaps the Lakers will surprise everyone down the stretch.
New York Knicks: What Happens When Everyone Comes Back?
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The New York Knicks have been simply unbelievable this season. The team has gone 20-7, beaten the Miami Heat twice, and it has all been done without star forward Amar'e Stoudemire or second-year guard and defensive beast Iman Shumpert, both of whom are recovering from knee surgery.
Carmelo Anthony has carried the team since, but the question presents itself: Can he and Amar'e play together once it is time for Stoudemire to return?
However, what about Shumpert? Veteran Jason Kidd has done an excellent job at shooting guard, providing both great defense and three-point shooting, so why try to fix something that's not broken?
Knicks coach Mike Woodson has a lot to think about in the near future. Stoudemire could return any day, and Shumpert will follow soon after.
The fact is, the Knicks are playing their best basketball in more than a decade. To see it all go down the tubes because of two players returning from injury and spoiling the chemistry would be a crying shame.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Is This the Year?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Thunder own the NBA's best record, and it's clear that the players are performing with chips on their shoulders. Last year's NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat hurt, and nobody will be satisfied until full vengeance is had.
As a result, the team is playing incredibly despite GM Sam Presti's decision to trade dynamic sixth man James Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin right before the start of the regular season. Though Harden's playmaking abilities are missed, Martin has done a great job filling his shoes, averaging 15.7 points and shooting 46 percent from long range.
The Thunder, however, are still a young team. They have done nothing but improve since Scott Brooks took over as head coach in 2008, but their inexperience exposed them in last year's NBA Finals.
This year is different. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are as great as ever, and Serge Ibaka has improved on both ends of the floor
Still, it's just one season since losing the NBA Finals. Oklahoma City is out for revenge, and fans have every right to ask certain questions.
Is this phenomenal play for real? More importantly, is this the season for a championship?
Well, fans, we'll just have to wait and see.