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The Biggest Problem Each NBA Team Faces for 2014-15 Season

Alec NathanFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2014

The Biggest Problem Each NBA Team Faces for 2014-15 Season

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    The NBA doesn't have much to offer in terms of excitement during the dog days of summer, but the relative level of inactivity gives us an opportunity to step back and evaluate where all 30 teams stand in their pursuit of a title. 

    While rebuilding clubs like the Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers are all years away from playoff contention, several of the Association's more established franchises have the Larry O'Brien trophy in their crosshairs. 

    But even the league's elite have weaknesses. Which is where we come in. 

    In the subsequent slides, we'll be breaking down each team's most glaring weakness based on a variety of factors. 

    Namely, we'll be considering statistical trends from last season that gave cause for alarm as well as personnel additions and subtractions that could impact tactical adjustments moving forward. 

     

    All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise. 

Atlanta Hawks

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    Still Missing the Superstar

    Barring a last-second stunner that sees the Atlanta Hawks steal Eric Bledsoe from the Phoenix Suns' clutches, Mike Budenholzer's club will continue to lack a bona fide superstar. 

    Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague are All-Star caliber talents, and while Atlanta figures to improve considerably with its center back at full strength, the Hawks remain on the outside looking in when it comes to the Eastern Conference title picture. 

    Last season's offensive and defensive rating rankings of 18 and 14, respectively, were nice, but the team finished 18th and 10th in those same advanced metrics the season prior. 

    It will take a considerable leap on the offensive end for Atlanta to emerge as a powerhouse in a conference that's now replete with quality depth, and the lack of a go-to scorer and pressure-reliever seems to be the one thing holding the promising squad back. 

Boston Celtics

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    Who's Scoring for Brad Stevens? 

    The Boston Celtics offense was downright anemic during year one under Brad Stevens, mustering 102.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark which ranked 27th out of 30 teams. 

    But with the Celtics stuck far deeper in a rebuild than anyone seems willing to admit, Boston could confront similar struggles in 2014-15. 

    Danny Ainge did little to bolster his team's scoring prowess on the wing this summer. Avery Bradley, a lockdown defender with shaky handles and a decent three-point stroke, returns to the fold, as does Jeff Green, who barely shot over 41 percent from the field and 34 percent from three last season. 

    Then there's Evan Turner, a ball-dominant pseudo point forward whose broken shot hasn't been corrected since he entered the league in 2010. 

    Factor in Rajon Rondo's tentative tendencies when it comes to perimeter shooting (a 39 percent shooter between 10 and 16 feet for his career) and rookie Marcus Smart's lack of a consistent outside shot, and the Celtics could conceivably regress on offense. 

     

Brooklyn Nets

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    Aging Core

    After nabbing the Eastern Conference's No. 6 seed last season, the Brooklyn Nets are at risk of falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture entirely should the injury bug strike again. 

    Deron Williams was limited to 64 appearances (58 starts) a season ago due to bum ankles, Brook Lopez saw action just 17 times, and Kevin Garnett managed to play in 66 percent of the team's regular-season contests. 

    Consider those players' respective injury histories, the fact that the average age of Brooklyn's projected starting lineup is 31.4 and the talent the Nets lost this summer (Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce, in particular), and the Nets' offerings this season could feasibly disappoint in unforeseen ways. 

    Some luck in the medical department will bolster the team's playoff chances, but they're far from a lock in the crowded East. 

Charlotte Hornets

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    Perimeter Scoring

    The Charlotte Hornets are primed to rank among the Eastern Conference's top risers in the coming months, but output in one key offensive category may hinder the franchise's ability to make a massive leap. 

    Yes, the Hornets added Lance Stephenson, and his presence will undoubtedly help Charlotte's offense function more efficiently than last season's 24th-ranked unit did.  

    However, the Hornets shot the league's fourth-fewest threes a year ago, canning just 35.1 percent of them, good for No. 23 overall. 

    This is also a club that ranked 24th in ball-handler scoring in the pick-and-roll and 22nd in spot-up scoring, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), and failed to add the floor-spacers necessary to ease perimeter concerns. 

    Rookie P.J. Hairston will do his part to try to alleviate some of those substantive worries, but the Hornets still have a few pieces to add before they take the East by storm. 

     

Chicago Bulls

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    Derrick Rose's Health

    Dating back to his gruesome knee injury in April, 2012, Derrick Rose's health has cast a dark shadow on the Chicago Bulls' chase for the franchise's first title since 1998. 

    Simply put, Chicago's offense sans Rose has sputtered. 

    Specifically, the Bulls mustered the league's 23rd-best offensive rating during the 2012-13 season, and that mark plummeted to No. 28 overall last season. 

    All this after the Bulls finished with the league's fifth-most efficient offense during Rose's last healthy regular-season campaign. 

    Now, with Rose seemingly back at full strength and Pau Gasol in the fold ready to take some pressure off Joakim Noah, Chicago's offense looks ready to round into form. 

    You know, assuming Rose can stay healthy this time. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Lack of Continuity 

    The Cleveland Cavaliers may very well be Eastern Conference favorites at this point in time, but as we've seen in the past, crowning newly formed superteams simply based on assembly is a risky business. 

    While a trade of Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers will get done by month's end, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, questions continue to linger regarding the team's depth, defensive chops and chemistry. 

    On-court synergy takes years—not months—to develop fully, as LeBron James and members of the 2010-11 Miami Heat will tell you. 

    A core of James, Love and Kyrie Irving will rank among the league's premier three-man units, but it remains to be seen if that core can establish the necessary continuity on both ends of the floor in a timely fashion. 

    Leapfrogging established title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls represents a daunting task, so don't be surprised to see Cleveland sputter briefly during its rapid turnaround. 

Dallas Mavericks

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    Defensive Prowess

    The Dallas Mavericks addressed their biggest defensive deficiency by bringing Tyson Chandler back in a June trade with the New York Knicks. 

    Elite rim protection had eluded the Mavericks since Chandler's departure, and the void was illuminated after the team allowed roll men to score 1.07 points per possession (No. 26 overall) last season, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). 

    However, despite adding Chandler and stunning the Association by bringing Chandler Parsons aboard, the Mavericks still have some considerable ground to cover before they're considered a polished team on both ends of the floor. 

    Although Dallas has the potential to grade out as the league's top-ranked offense next season, it finished 15th or higher when defending just three play types last season, and those plays still combined to account for just 23.2 percent of the team's defensive possessions, per Synergy. 

     

Denver Nuggets

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    The West Is Simply Too Deep

    Regression was the name of the game for Brian Shaw's Denver Nuggets last season. 

    Following George Karl's 57-win outburst during the 2012-13 season, the Nuggets underwent some serious growing pains during Shaw's first season as head coach. 

    Specifically, the team's win total decreased by a massive 21 games while offensive and defensive efficiency ratings took four- and three-point hits, respectively. 

    As a result, Denver finished No. 11 overall in a stacked Western Conference, one that boasted seven 50-win teams and a 49-win club in the Dallas Mavericks. 

    Climbing back into the playoff picturemuch less the title conversation—is going to take considerable time, especially with the Nuggets strapped for cash over the next two seasons, per ShamSports

    Building blocks like Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Kenneth Faried can lay a solid foundation in the years ahead, but championship aspirations should be put on hold for the time being. 

     

Detroit Pistons

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    Personnel Concerns

    Stan Van Gundy and his polished resume will look to jump-start a cultural revolution in the Motor City this season, but questions about the team's redundant personnel continue to hound the Detroit Pistons. 

    Last season, the Pistons were an absolute mess from top to bottom. 

    Three-point shooting was nonexistent, Josh Smith was an inefficient mess in a crowded frontcourt, and defense was nowhere to be found. 

    Now, with Van Gundy in the fold, it's time to see if the Pistons and their reformed roster can play a more efficient brand of ball that centers around the triple. 

    Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler, D.J. Augustin and Cartier Martin were all brought aboard to try to provide some stability on the perimeter, but it remains to be seen if their contributions will be enough to mask Smith's woes while Andre Drummond transitions into a role as the team's offensive centerpiece. 

    And with Greg Monroe still unsigned, there are simply too many lingering questions in need of definitive answers to consider Detroit a playoff contender. 

Golden State Warriors

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    Reluctance to Trade for Kevin Love

    According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves have reached an agreement on a trade for Kevin Love that can be completed once the 30-day moratorium on Andrew Wiggins' rookie contract is lifted. 

    Which means that the Golden State Warriors may be making a colossal mistake, apparently passing up the chance to acquire another superstar after refusing to part with Klay Thompson. 

    As Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb notes, Golden State is pegging its hopes on current personnel developing at an accelerated rate under the tutelage of a new regime, namely because the franchise hasn't made any major personnel moves this summer: 

    After acquiring Andre Iguodala in the summer of 2013, Golden State's roster hasn't undergone much change during the current offseason (aside from adding Shaun Livingston and Brandon Rush). The big development was the ouster of head coach Mark Jackson and subsequent hiring of TV analyst Steve Kerr.

    The organization appears to be banking on the possibility that new leadership will make the most of a core that's already proven it can compete in a crowded Western Conference.

    According to USA Today's Sam Amick, the Warriors' justification for not dealing Thompson in a package for Love revolves around the team's desire to retain defensive continuity: 

    A starting five of Curry, Kevin Martin (who has been offered as a Thompson replacement), Andre Iguodala, Love and Andrew Bogut would be dynamic, to be sure, but only Bogut and Iguodala are known as elite defenders and the defensive deficiencies of the other three are well-chronicled. Yet Kerr said from the start he wanted a stretch four to add another potent layer to the offense, and so it seemed inevitable in those early stages of discussions with Minnesota that his much talked-about need would be filled by Love at any cost.

    The justification is fair. As the San Antonio Spurs will tell you, continuity is everything. 

    But in a league driven by star power, the Warriors will regret passing up a chance to add the Association's premier stretch 4 and transform what was a slightly above-average offense last season into an elite unit. 

Houston Rockets

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    Shaky Offseason

    It will take a few months before we can truly evaluate Daryl Morey's performance in free agency, but as of now, it's easy to question his puzzling succession of moves. 

    Striking out on Chris Bosh sent Houston from surefire title contenders into the realm of likely first-round playoff departures, and the exodus of Chandler Parsons to Dallas only strengthens that sentiment. 

    Signing Trevor Ariza at $32 million over four years was unquestionably fair value based on Ariza's 2013-14 performance and market inflation, but there's risk inherent in paying a wing of his caliber and hoping similar production is sustained moving forward. 

    Remember, the Rockets are familiar with overpaying Ariza when he overachieves in a contract year and then experiencing feelings of regret shortly thereafter. 

    With the team's offensive foundation taking a hit, it remains to be seen if James Harden and Dwight Howard will be able to replicate the success that saw Houston finish with 54 wins a season ago. 

     

Indiana Pacers

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    Too Many Voids to Fill

    It's truly a shame what's happened to the Indiana Pacers. 

    First, Lance Stephenson bolted for the Charlotte Hornets. 

    Then Paul George suffered a tragic leg injury that realistically looks like it will end his 2014-15 season before it started. 

    Frank Vogel and the Pacers now find themselves in deep trouble, namely because the team's wing depth has been decimated. 

    Just consider this tidbit from Grantland's Zach Lowe: "No IND lineup w/o both PG and Lance logged more than 28 minutes in '13-14 regular season. No such lineup logged > 10 mins in playoffs."

    Now those voids need to be filled by the tandem of Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles, free-agent signings who don't exactly possess the defensive tenacity that George and Stephenson boasted the last two seasons. 

    Here's Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney on the chemistry Indiana will miss: 

    Every night the Pacers could count on George locking down the best opposing wing, Stephenson hounding the other, West bodying up an opposing power forward and George Hill smothering a crucial ball handler. The synergy therein, earned by logging more time as a five-man lineup than any other in the league over the past two seasons, was essential to Indiana's defensive execution.

    Remember, this is a team that relied on lockdown defense night after night to succeed. 

    Offensive efficiency was already a major problem the last two seasons with George and Stephenson, so one can only imagine how their absences will affect Indiana's ability to sneak into the playoffs. 

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Interior Depth

    Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan ranked among the league's top shot-blockers last season, rejecting 2.48 shots per game. Only Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka—the Association's two elite rim protectors—swatted more shots per night. 

    But when Jordan found himself in foul trouble, the Clippers were left without reliable rim protection. 

    According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Clippers ranked 29th on defense in roll-man scoring in the pick-and-roll last season, allowing 1.14 points per possession. 

    Which is why the team's signing of Spencer Hawes at $23 million over four years seemed like a logical move on the surface. 

    However, what many seem to be overlooking is that Hawes likely won't solve the team's most pressing defensive woes in the paint. 

    Remember, the Clippers finished ranked No. 23 overall in opponent's paint scoring last season, per TeamRankings.com

    For instance, Hawes actually allowed 1.19 points per possession to roll men during his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, per Synergy, which ranked No. 121 among all qualifying players. 

    At the $23 million mid-level valuation, Hawes was a logical fit for a team that needed depth at center, given his rare skill set.  

    But whether he can actually provide Doc Rivers' squad with the two-way dependability necessary to justify the signing is another matter entirely. 

     

Los Angeles Lakers

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    Who's Playing Defense? 

    A few components contributed to the Los Angeles Lakers' appalling defense last season.

    They were ravaged by injuries from point guard to center, and that certainly hurt. But it wasn't the lone factor. 

    Mike D'Antoni's teams have never been renowned for superlative defensive play, and that was particularly evident last season when the Lakers were a train wreck on that end of the floor. 

    Particularly in transition. 

    Since the Purple and Gold were playing at the league's second-fastest pace, they struggled to get back on defense in a timely fashion, resulting in an allowance of 1.15 points per possession (No. 22 overall) on the break, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). 

    So how does Byron Scott change things? 

    Well, he doesn't. 

    According to a tweet from NBA.com's John Schuhmann, "Since league expanded to 30 teams, Byron Scott is only guy to coach 3 straight teams to bottom 5 in defensive efficiency."

    With a projected starting five consisting of Jeremy Lin, Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill, Scott will be forced to fight the steepest of uphill battles when it comes to defensive improvement. 

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Lack of Offensive Firepower

    As a general manager recently told ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, the NBA is "a driver-and-putter league now."

    Apparently, the Memphis Grizzlies didn't get the memo.

    Last season, Dave Joerger's club attempted the league's fewest threes and the most two-point shots, which resulted in Memphis recording a point-per-game output that ranked No. 27 overall. 

    However, that strategy can't be knocked completely, because the Grizzlies' offensive efficiency graded out at No. 15 overall, which put them firmly in the middle of the pack. 

    But in a Western Conference that's dominated by offensive powers like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, the Grizzlies need to find ways to keep pace. 

    And this summer, they didn't do much to bolster their attack other than replace Mike Miller with a slightly more versatile and aging Vince Carter, who shot a career-worst 40.7 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three last season. 

    A full season of Courtney Lee combined with Quincy Pondexter's return will keep Memphis in the running for one of the West's seeds in the No. 4-7 range, but hoping to slow more dynamic opponents down in the postseason year after year has proven to be a treacherous undertaking. 

Miami Heat

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    Recovering From the Loss of LeBron James

    In some circles, it appears as though the Miami Heat are already being discounted as Eastern Conference also-rans. 

    The justification: Losing LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers will crush any title hopes Miami had. 

    The road back to the NBA Finals will undoubtedly be arduous, and Dwyane Wade has acknowledged as much, according to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick

    It was a different summer for us. It's no secret, obviously, it’s been a change in how we looked the last four years by losing LeBron to Cleveland. I think our ownership has done a great job so far of trying to not replace but recover from that. The only thing we do as a franchise and as players is we move forward.

    And Wade's absolutely right. 

    Replacing LeBron is an impossible task. 

    But Pat Riley's graceful recovery deserves praise, because this is still a club that can compete for an Eastern Conference title. 

    With a core consisting of Wade, Chris Bosh and Luol Deng, Miami has assembled the veteran pieces necessary to give the likes of Chicago, Cleveland and Washington a run for their money. 

    Some good fortune in the medical department will be required, but don't count the Heat out just yet. 

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Still Putting the Pieces Together

    It's going to be a long road back to the playoffs for the Milwaukee Bucks, but the collection of young talent they've managed to assemble these past two summers has put the franchise on the right track. 

    With Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the charge, Milwaukee is intriguing at the bare minimum. Which is more than we could say about Larry Drew's sorry squad. 

    Here's CBS Sports' Zach Harper with more on how the Bucks can play an exciting brand of ball under second-year head coach Jason Kidd:

    This team will be awful but they're going to be awful even if you throw them into a more conventional setting. Larry Drew had his Bucks team playing with the 24th fastest pace, which is otherwise known as the seventh slowest. And while it's not a huge sample size, when the Bucks played at league average pace or higher last season, they were 6-18 (25.0 winning percentage). When they played slower than the league pace, Milwaukee was 9-49 (15.5 winning percentage).

    Fans love potential and if you mix in some weirdness on the court with a break-neck pace to go with it, you can not only likely be more successful in the win column but you'll also be able to bring back some fans.

    There's no sense in thinking the Bucks will be anything more than a lottery team when the 2014-15 season concludes, but Kidd should have fun mixing and matching lineups with a bevy of athletic freaks like Parker, Antetokounmpo, John Henson and a potentially resurgent Larry Sanders. 

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Too Much Transitionary Uncertainty 

    According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves have an agreement in place to make a Kevin Love-Andrew Wiggins swap once the rookie's 30-day trade moratorium is lifted.

    Here are the details, per Wojnarowski:  

    The Minnesota Timberwolves have reached an agreement in principle to send All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round draft pick, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

    Cleveland is making the deal with Minnesota with a firm agreement Love will opt out of his contract in 2015 and re-sign with the Cavaliers on a five-year, $120 million-plus contract extension, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

    But here's the thing when it comes to Minnesota's immediate prospects: No matter how much Andrew Wiggins prospers as a rookie, there's no single talent (or collection of upside) on the Timberwolves capable of replacing Love and his floor-stretching, double-team-drawing prowess. 

    Consider that the Timberwolves couldn't even crack .500 with healthy seasons from Love and Ricky Rubio while posting top-12 efficiency ratings on both ends of the floor under Rick Adelman, and Flip Saunders figures to have his hands full back at the helm. 

    With Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine running the floor alongside a distributive savant like Rubio, the Timberwolves will be one of the league's most entertaining nightly watches.

    Just don't expect instant results in the win column. 

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Wing Defense 

    It's time for the New Orleans Pelicans to justify the hyperactivity that's seen Monty Williams' club assemble a roster loaded with potential and unfulfilled promise.

    Here's Bleacher Report's Dan Favale on all general manager Dell Demps has done to appease superstar Anthony Davis:

    Two years into his NBA career, Davis is a superstar. A top-10 superstar. A top-five superstar. The Pellies know it judging by their activity. Last summer it was Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. This summer it was Omer Asik.

    In surrounding Davis with this talent, the Pellies have now forfeited two valuable first-rounders—this past year's and 2015's (owed to the Houston Rockets with top-three and bottom-11 protection, per RealGM).

    Those moves signal a desire to win. Now.

    But in order for New Orleans to climb out of the Southwest Division cellar, it will need to boast an improved brand of defense on the perimeter. 

    We know that New Orleans' interior defense possesses the potential to be menacing, with Omer Asik flanking Davis, but allowing opponents to rack up 22.3 three-point attempts didn't help a unit that finished No. 27 overall in defensive efficiency last season. 

    Luck is obviously a major factor here, for a healthy Jrue Holiday could change the Pelicans' fortunes when it comes to defending opposing backcourts. But the team's prized perimeter scorers will need to step up and show real commitment in order to vault the Pelicans into the playoffs. 

New York Knicks

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    Not Enough Adequate Help for Carmelo Anthony

    Until the New York Knicks can free up considerable cap space, there won't be much reason for the faithful clad in blue and orange to cheer. 

    Entering the 2014-15 season, the Knicks have $90.1 million on the books, according to ShamSports

    The good news is that relief will be on the way next summer, when the team will have a maximum of $41.4 million of committed salary on the books (including options) and as little as $32 million guaranteed (without options). 

    But as things stand right now, the Knicks project as nothing more than a back-end playoff hopeful in an Eastern Conference that has rapidly transformed thanks to an infusion of depth. 

    That's because aging talents like Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani (each of whom has a contract expiring at season's end) are working against their own biological clocks as key complementary pieces. 

    And with a defense that finished No. 24 overall in terms of efficiency last season, Derek Fisher will have more work to do than simply installing a new offense around Anthony and pieces that aren't long for Madison Square Garden. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Who Plays the 2? 

    With Thabo Sefolosha now residing in Atlanta, it's easy to wonder who will assume the Oklahoma City Thunder's defensive burden on the perimeter. 

    But here's the good news: The Thunder posted identical defensive ratings (101.0) with Sefolosha on and off the floor last season, per NBA.com, and their offense suffered a nearly four-point-per-100-possession decrease in production when he was hovering around the three-point line. 

    While those facts may make it easier to stomach Reggie Jackson's installation at the 2, the team has some legitimate concerns when it comes to guarding the perimeter. 

    For instance, the Thunder allowed the league's fourth-most made threes (705) last season, which represented a 15.6 percent increase over the previous season. Not only that, but Scott Brooks' defense surrendered 1,968 three-point attempts, an 11.8 percent increase from 2012-13. 

    Should Jackson slot in at the 2 alongside Russell Westbrook, the two will undoubtedly see tremendous offensive success. 

    Per NBA stats (via Bleacher Report's Fred Katz), "i395 regular-season minutes (subscription required) during which Westbrook and Jackson shared the floor, the Thunder outscored opponents by an outrageous 17.8 points per 100 possessions (commonly referred to as net rating)." 

    Additionally, Jackson's offensive rating skyrocketed from 102.8 to 118.9 when playing shooting guard last season, per 82games.com

    The bad news, per 82games, is that Jackson's defensive rating jumped up 5.7 points when playing the 2. And with Jeremy Lamb the only other viable option to start at the 2, that's a deficiency the Thunder may have to live with. 

    It's admittedly a good problem to have, considering how prosperous Jackson has made the Thunder in spurts, but the team's perimeter depth is worth keeping an eye on as the season gets underway. 

Orlando Magic

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    2 Years Away from Being 2 Years Away

    We're engaging in a bit of hyperbole here, but Fran Fraschilla's infamous draft-night description of Toronto Raptors rookie Bruno Caboclo helps frame just how far the Orlando Magic have to go before contending for a title. 

    Defensively, Orlando is bursting with potential.

    Rookies Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton join Victor Oladipo on a team that somehow managed to rank around the league average (No. 17) in defensive efficiency last season. 

    But with sources of consistent offensive production in question after Arron Afflalo was dealt back to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Evan Fournier and a second-round pick, it's hard to imagine the Magic making much progress in the win column. 

    With Afflalo in the fold, the Magic still ranked 29th in offensive efficiency last season. And according to NBA.com, Orlando posted an offensive rating of just 99.0 with Afflalo off the floor. 

    Those are tough numbers to swallow, but Jacque Vaughn's collection of young talent will still be one of the most fascinating experiments to watch develop this season.  

     

Philadelphia 76ers

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    Just Look at the Roster

    It's not hard to glance at the Philadelphia 76ers' roster and understand why Brett Brown's team is the odds-on favorite to finish with the league's worst record next season. 

    As things stand, the Sixers have one projected starter (Thaddeus Young) who's played more than a single season in the pros. 

    With nominal progress (at best) on the horizon, Brown will simply need to continue developing the young pieces in tow and help the Sixers work their way out of the league's efficiency cellar. 

    A refresher: Philadelphia finished dead last in offensive efficiency, generating 99.4 points per 100 possessions, while ranking No. 26 in defensive rating (109.9) a year ago. 

     

Phoenix Suns

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    Frontcourt Uncertainty 

    When Phoenix Suns center Miles Plumlee opened the 2013-14 season by averaging 9.8 points and 9.9 rebounds during the month of December, it looked like Jeff Hornacek had found some stability in an otherwise shaky frontcourt. 

    Sadly, those averages weren't sustainable and subsequently decreased over each of the season's final four months. And with them came a defensive rating that ballooned from a sturdy mark of 100 to a concerning 109. 

    What Phoenix has established in the backcourt and on the wing in the span of a year is nothing short of extraordinary. The Suns have all of the young pieces necessary to compete for a playoff spot after missing out on the postseason party by a single game last season. 

    However, vaulting up the Western Conference ranks figures to be a tall task with a frontcourt that revolves around Plumlee and the Morris twins. 

    Last season, the Suns were gashed on the boards at times, ranking No. 22 overall in opponent's offensive rebounds. 

    Additionally, Phoenix ranked No. 23 overall when it came to surrendering points on the offensive glass. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), Phoenix allowed 1.1 points per possession on said play types. 

    Perhaps the emergence of Alex Len will provide Phoenix with a robust game-changing presence in the paint, but it's hard to project his impact after he appeared in just 42 games (three starts) last season. 

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Too Many Defensive Holes to Patch Up 

    The Portland Trail Blazers will need to fight off some feisty regression demons this season, for the team's 54-win outburst last year has raised expectations considerably in the Pacific Northwest. 

    With full-fledged superstars in Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, there's mounting pressure on Terry Stotts' club to win now. 

    But with the team's defense still full of glaring holes, nabbing a top-five seed for the second consecutive season could prove to be a daunting task. 

    Quickly consider these facts: 

    • The Blazers were 1.3 points better per 100 possessions defensively with Lillard off the floor, per NBA.com. To have your best player be considered a defensive liability is a major concern moving forward. 
    • Lillard ranked No. 180 or worse in terms of opponent's point-per-possession scoring when guarding isolations and pick-and-roll ball-handlers, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). 
    • While the team's three-point defense was strong (No. 11 overall in opponents 3P%), Portland surrendered the league's third-most paint points per game, according to TeamRankings

    This is a team built to contend for a title on one end of the floor. Portland's second-ranked offense (111.5 points per 100 possessions) proved as much. 

    Defensively, though, the Blazers still have plenty of work to do in order to shed their status as a fledgling unit. 

Sacramento Kings

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    Trapped in Purgatory

    What, exactly, are we to make of the Sacramento Kings' strange quest for respect? 

    According to Grantland's Zach Lowe, confusion is reigning supreme: 

    The Kings? They haven’t hit .500 since 2005-06, their ownership situation was one of the worst in pro sports before Vivek Ranadivé rescued them, and their current GM, Pete D’Alessandro, came aboard last June only after the team had hired a new coach and made several crucial free-agency decisions.

    The Kings swear there is a governing strategy, if you look at the trail of evidence just right. “There is a plan here,” D’Alessandro says. “We are just thinking outside the box.”

    But this is the Western Conference. 

    Mediocrity isn't acceptable the same way it is (or, perhaps, was) in the East. 

    As outlined previously, there's a minimum 49- or 50-win threshold that needs to be met these days in order to qualify for the postseason out West. 

    Coming off of a 28-win season and with Isaiah Thomas now employed by the Phoenix Suns, the Kings aren't exactly poised for some sort of major progression during year two under Mike Malone. 

    DeMarcus Cousins may make the full-time leap into superstardom, but that doesn't mean wins will follow. 

    It's going to take rapid development from Ben McLemore, the continued reformation of Rudy Gay and plenty more to get the Kings thinking about the playoffs. 

    And even then, they may still be 10 wins away from crashing the party. 

San Antonio Spurs

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    Health 

    At this point in the San Antonio Spurs' dynastic quest to achieve basketball immortality, it appears as if only bad luck can impede a third straight trip to the Finals.

    While it's impossible to predict if and when physical setbacks will occur, Gregg Popovich has done a sensational job managing his veterans' minutes, which has kept his key pieces relatively healthy. 

    Although Tiago Splitter missed extended time due to a sprained shoulder, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili all appeared in at least 66 games last season, while no single player exceeded the 30-minute-per-game threshold for the entire season.

    But given the ages of key cogs like Duncan (38), Ginobili (37) and Parker (32), you can bet on Popovich gauging his veterans' minutes as close as he ever has in hopes of keeping them fresh for another fruitful postseason run. 

Toronto Raptors

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    Not Enough Emphasis on Low Post

    While NBA teams are increasingly embracing an inside-outside offensive philosophy, the Toronto Raptors still have some work to do when it comes to scoring down low. 

    Last season, the Raptors made the league's third-fewest two-point shots and weren't particularly effective when they did opt to shoot inside the arc. 

    On 4,801 two-point attempts (No. 23 overall), Toronto converted just 47.5 percent, which also ranked 23rd. 

    Which is why it shouldn't surprise that the Raptors ranked No. 23 overall in paint points per game, according to TeamRankings.com

    One way to embrace the low blocks a bit more would be to get center Jonas Valanciunas a bump in touches. During the 2013-14 season, the Lithuanian big averaged just 8.3 field-goal attempts per game, the fewest among any center who played at least 28 minutes per game, according to Basketball-Reference.com

    And as Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb noted when Toronto's season came to an end, implementing a more balanced approach could work wonders for the entire offense moving forward: 

    Now that we know what Valanciunas can do, the Raptors have to design more plays for him, look for more ways to get the ball into the painted area where he can go to work. While this team's best players remain on the perimeter, they too will benefit from an inside-outside approach that forces defenders to collapse around the basket.

Utah Jazz

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    The Rebuild

    The Utah Jazz may be ready to take a few baby steps forward during year one under Quin Snyder, but this is still a team years away from playoff contention. 

    Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Dante Exum have the makings of a potentially dynamic inside-outside trio moving forward, but it'll take considerable time for them to establish the chemistry necessary to make an impact in the Western Conference.

    In the short term, Utah needs to focus on shoring up a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season while playing at a horribly slow pace under Ty Corbin.

    Now that Snyder is the man on the bench, Utah's young core can only hope it's given the freedom to run after mustering 91.4 possessions per 48 minutes (No. 26 overall). 

    Per NBA.com, only the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies played at a slower pace last season. 

    And while that's generally company that the Jazz would be happy to keep, Utah should be looking to push the rock every chance it gets with quality athletes at all five positions. 

Washington Wizards

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    John Wall's Jump Shot

    The Washington Wizards made substantial progress on both ends of the floor last season, and offseason acquisitions such as Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair will only strengthen their bid for a title in a rapidly improving Eastern Conference. 

    However, as most NBA teams are aware, superstars tend to dictate success. 

    In this case, we're talking about John Wall.  

    Wall's development in year four was revelatory, yielding an All-Star selection and a second-round playoff appearance. 

    That said, Wall's jump shot could still use considerable refinement, and improvement there could be the final piece of Washington's Eastern Conference title equation. 

    Last season, Wall made some nominal improvements when it came to his stroke, but it was nothing spectacular, according to Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes

    John Wall added an improved three-point shot to his game this past season, hitting 35.1 percent of his attempts from long distance after never breaking the modest 30 percent barrier in any previous year.

    His overall field-goal percentage took a mild dip, though, which resulted in a a true shooting percentage that was only a fraction better than the one he posted in 2012-13. And there was a bigger problem: Wall didn't trust his retooled jumper when his team needed it most.

    Exploring Wall's performance last season, it's evident that the 23-year-old didn't fully trust his shot. According to NBA.com, Wall didn't shoot above the league average from any basic zone on the floor, and he made a meager 26.67 percent of his attempts between 8-16 feet. 

    If the rising star can start knocking down mid-range jumpers with aplomb, it'll only be a matter of time before Washington is mentioned in the same breath as the league's elite. 

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