Biggest Questions Looming for NBA's Stretch Run

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2014

Biggest Questions Looming for NBA's Stretch Run

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    The NBA's high-profile teams are running out of time.

    With the 2013-14 regular season coming to an end on April 16, there are only a few precious weeks left for championship contenders like the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder to answer their most pressing questions.

    Can Dwyane Wade provide consistent production? Will Russell Westbrook's reintegration into OKC's lineup do more harm than good? Will the Golden State Warriors ever sort out their underwhelming offense?

    Those quandaries are only the beginning. For some of the league's biggest individual names, there are also areas of uncertainty that have lingered through the first four months of the season.

    So as squads around the league jostle for playoff position, trim rotations and prepare for games that really count, they'll also be scrambling for answers. If some 11th-hour clarity arrives, it could propel a team like Miami or Oklahoma City to another level.

    But if doubts persist, we could see some surprising vulnerability and turmoil take hold of the Association.

Can D-Wade Get Right, Stay Right?

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    Wade has been missing games on the regular this season, and even though he's been productive when capable of suiting up, he's spent far too many contests in street clothes. In fact, of Miami's first 54 games this year, Wade has missed 15 of them.

    At no point has he played more than eight contests in a row.

    Smart teams around the league are gradually adopting the San Antonio Spurs' tactic of resting stars, but we've seen enough from Wade over the past two years to know there's something more to his repeated DNPs.

    As has been the case since 2011-12, his knees are a major source of concern.

    LeBron James may have actually improved since his historically dominant season last year, but we'll need proof Wade can hold up in order to view the Heat as prohibitive favorites to win another title.

    The problem is, we're not likely to see Miami push Wade down the stretch. If anything, head coach Erik Spoelstra will manage his minutes even more carefully in hopes of preserving him for the playoffs. That means the Heat will likely head into the postseason without any assurances their shooting guard will hold up when it matters most.

    To be clear, there's no questioning Wade's effectiveness when he's able to play. He's posting a career high in true shooting percentage, and his player efficiency rating is a still-excellent 21.9, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    It's just that the Heat simply don't know how often they'll be able to rely on him.

Will Russell Westbrook Do More Harm Than Good?

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    We've seen Oklahoma City have success both with and without Russell Westbrook this season, which is actually a new development.

    Remember, Kevin Durant couldn't carry the Thunder on his own during last year's playoffs. With Westbrook sidelined with a torn meniscus, the Memphis Grizzlies eliminated OKC in five games in the second round. After that dismantling, it seemed crazy to question Westbrook's immense value to his team.

    Now, though, the calculus has changed. Westbrook has undergone three knee operations in less than a year, and it's fair to wonder whether his superhuman athleticism (always his most valuable asset) is somewhat diminished.

    During Westbrook's most recent absence, Durant used all of January and most of February to take his game to another level. And in the few games he's played since returning, Westbrook hasn't done much to prove he can seamlessly fit in alongside his superstar teammate.

    The Thunder have now lost Westbrook's first three games back, and the point guard has gunned his way to a combined 15-of-42 shooting performance in those contests. Worse still, the ball hasn't spent nearly enough time in Durant's hands.

    OKC isn't dealing with a question of style or fit anymore. Now, there's also justifiable concern about Westbrook's physical abilities. Before, the Thunder accepted Westbrook's bad shots and overdribbling because he was such a phenomenal athlete, capable of terrorizing opponents with relentless drives in the half court and on the break.

    If he can't be that guy anymore, Oklahoma City will have to face the tricky balancing act of keeping Westbrook engaged while simultaneously diminishing his role.

    Look, the sample size of Westbrook's latest return is extremely small. And for what it's worth, the Thunder's most important figure isn't interested in changing his recovering teammate's role. Per Craig A. Brenner of Welcome to Loud City, Durant said

    He only missed 25 games in 6 years. So it won't be hard to get him back into the lineup. We just want him to be himself. We don't want him to come out there and try to think too much, play a little different, or play too passive. We just want him to be aggressive, and be himself. We're just going to mold ourselves around him. We're not trying to have him mold into the team. We're just gonna all rally around him.

    If Westbrook can play at the level he set before his series of injuries, that'll be a perfectly acceptable approach. But what if he can't?

    OKC has a very delicate question on its hands and only a few weeks to come up with an answer.

Is Kobe Bryant Done?

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    Before you get your purple and gold shorts in a bunch, I mean "Is Kobe Bryant done for the season?"

    Per Gary Washburn of the The Boston Globe, if the Los Angeles Lakers' icon has anything to say about it, the answer is a resounding "no": "He refuses to bypass this troubled season in Los Angeles and prepare for the next one, even though his return from a knee injury may damage the organization long-term."

    And that's just it: Bryant wants to get a few reps in before the season ends, even though his return could lead to a few more wins on the ledger. The Lakers don't (or at least shouldn't) want any more wins this year. They're looking at the lottery, not the playoffs.

    But how do you tell a guy who's basically royalty in Los Angeles to sit the rest of the season out? Put simply, you don't. Any efforts by the Lakers on that front will have to be much subtler. Of course, it's also possible Bryant's knee, which is still weeks away from full health, might make the decision easier for everybody.

    Make no mistake, though—this is a complicated situation. L.A. is paying Bryant a ton of money, and fans could probably use the emotional boost his return could provide. But there's no practical reason to play him, especially not if the Lakers are serious about getting another couple of years out of his body.

    The Lakers aren't a relevant factor in this year's stretch run. But if you think that'll keep them from being on the front page as this saga plays out, you're crazy.

     

Can the Warriors Find Some Offense?

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    Before you even ask, yes, I do realize how ridiculous it is for a team with Stephen Curry to be struggling in the point-generation department.

    But that's where the Dubs are these days—sporting an elite defense that has been good enough to mask a stunningly pedestrian effort on the offensive end. Per NBA.com, they currently rank 13th in offensive rating and third in defensive rating.

    A defensive identity is a good thing to have in a championship profile, but a little extra offensive innovation (and improvement) could quickly transform the Dubs from a second-tier playoff contender to a fringe championship threat.

    For that to happen, the Warriors will need to cut down on their isolations and post-ups while adding more counters and secondary actions. To some degree, Curry's mere presence makes for a potent offensive attack, but he can't be the only source of buckets, per Truehoop's Ethan Sherwood Strauss:

    Right now that offense implodes when Curry takes to the bench, scoring 18.4 fewer points per 100 possessions. 

    Although the Warriors' offense runs far better when Curry is in, it can get into ruts where there’s little ball movement and many post-ups to ball stoppers like O’Neal, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Now that they’ve added more pieces through trades, the Warriors must strike a more favorable balance.

    Golden State has just a few weeks to prove its mettle as a two-way team. If it can't, the Dubs are going to be little more than a one-and-done first-round out. That won't fly for an ownership group whose most notable characteristic is impatience.

Can the Knicks Impress Carmelo Anthony?

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    There doesn't seem to be any danger of Carmelo Anthony giving up on the New York Knicks' season, even if every indicator says he probably should.

    Following a devastating loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 24, Anthony, who turned in his fourth straight high-scoring effort, revealed his frustrations right alongside his resolve. Per Brett Pollakoff of ProBasketballTalk.com, 'Melo said: "It’s pointless. Pointless. It is tough. You score 40, 44, 44, 44 — all losses. You kind of ask yourself, is it worth it? But I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing. You can believe that.”

    As everyone knows, Anthony can exercise the early-termination option in his contract after this season. And though he seems committed to staying in New York, you have to wonder whether the Knicks have done enough to convince him sticking around is worthwhile.

    They've got the advantage of being able to pay 'Melo more than he'll get on the open market, but money might not be enough to offset the reservations Anthony should be having about his team's front office, coaching staff and ownership.

    With just a few weeks remaining in the season, the Knicks need to do something, anything, to convince Anthony he should stay.