Your Favorite NBA Team's 2023 New Year's Resolution

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 1, 2023

Your Favorite NBA Team's 2023 New Year's Resolution

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    Atlanta's Trae Young
    Atlanta's Trae YoungRon Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

    With the calendar flipping to 2023 and just over half the regular season left to play, the new year provides a perfect opportunity for NBA teams to take stock of their situations...and adjust accordingly.

    Whether staking out a spot in the cellar or scaling the summit of the standings, every team has issues. Now's the time to look inward, decide what needs to change and resolve to act on that decision.

    As we all commit to exercising more, cutting sugar, reading a book every week or whatever other self-improvement plan feels right, let's run through the NBA and lay out the resolutions every team should make in the new year.

Atlanta Hawks: Ask the Big Questions

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    Trae Young
    Trae YoungScott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

    During his relatively brief career, Trae Young has been one of those rare players capable of elevating his team's offense by himself. The Atlanta Hawks finished second in scoring efficiency last year and ninth the year before. Even when their overall offensive performance has underwhelmed, like when they finished 26th in 2019-20 or 25th in 2018-19 (Young's rookie season), it has been in spite of the point guard's massive positive impact.

    His presence on the floor has improved the Hawks' attack by huge margins in every season of his career. Last year, Young became the first player to lead the league in total points and assists since 1973.

    And yet...the Hawks find themselves in a position where they have to ask whether Young is the right player to build around.

    Clashes with both coaches for whom he's played, simmering tensions with top teammates, a failure to adjust his playing style to accommodate Dejounte Murray (or anyone else) and now rumors of a potential down-the-road trade request should have Atlanta making an honest top-down evaluation.

    If it's true that the best path forward does not involve Young as the team's centerpiece, it'd be far better to act a little too early than a little too late.

Boston Celtics: Put It All Together

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    Jayson Tatum (left), Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown
    Jayson Tatum (left), Marcus Smart and Jaylen BrownMegan Briggs/Getty Images

    It should have been clear that virtually every member of the Boston Celtics rotation wasn't going to drill 40-something percent of their threes for the entire season, but the team's fall from the offensive stratosphere was caused by more than predictable long-range regression.

    Some of Boston's well-known bugaboos, namely turnovers and stagnation, cropped back up as what was once the league's top attack slipped in December.

    Fortunately, the Celtics have Robert Williams III back in action following a knee injury. With him in the lineup, it should be possible for Boston to recapture its identity on the defensive end.

    Remember, absolutely nobody could score on the Celtics last year once Williams slid over to his roving corner position that allowed him to swoop in to erase action at the rim. Over the second-half of 2021-22, the Celtics were far and away the best defense in the NBA.

    The key to Boston's making good on its championship potential will be finding a way to meld the offensive excellence it showed through the first six weeks of this season and the suffocating defense it played down the stretch a year ago.

Brooklyn Nets: Stay Quiet

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    Kevin Durant (center)
    Kevin Durant (center)Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

    The Brooklyn Nets were the undisputed champions of dysfunction from July to November, but they've somehow managed to hold the roster together and simply play basketball for most of the last month. Since Steve Nash departed as coach and Kyrie Irving returned from his suspension in late November, things have been remarkably quiet.

    The results have been good.

    Brooklyn is climbing the standings and carving out what looks likely to be a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference on the strength of an MVP-caliber season from Kevin Durant and improved play from an increasingly healthy supporting cast.

    Talent and depth were never in question for this group, though. Combustion potential was always the issue, and it'll remain that way for the duration of the season. The quieter things stay in Brooklyn, the more likely this team will make noise in the playoffs.

Charlotte Hornets: Play the Picks

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    Mark Williams
    Mark WilliamsFernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

    The Charlotte Hornets' resolution could have just been "face the facts," but highlighting the reality that they're spiraling the drain would just feel cruel without suggesting what they should do about it.

    A team with no prospects for short-term success should gather as much information as it can about its future potential by playing, well...prospects!

    Look back at Charlotte's last handful of drafts, and it's eye-opening to note how little playing time its recent first-rounders are earning. Sure, LaMelo Ball, already an All-Star, is deservedly running the show. But this year's No. 15 selection, Mark Williams, had logged a grand total of 13 minutes spread across three games until earning a fringe rotation role this past week.

    What possible justification could there have been for trotting out 32-year-old Mason Plumlee every night when a 2022 first-rounder at the same position was shredding the G League for 22.2 points and 12.2 rebounds per game on 64.8 percent shooting?

    Perhaps Williams would make defensive mistakes or struggle with offensive positioning given his inexperience, but the Hornets are already one of the two worst teams in the East by a considerable margin. There's no downside!

    James Bouknight, picked 11th in 2021, and Kai Jones, picked 19th by the New York Knicks and rerouted to Charlotte that year, are also languishing on the pine. Nobody's arguing they've done enough to deserve minutes or that they'll outperform the vets playing ahead of them, but this Hornets team is going nowhere regardless.

    They might as well see what the kids can do over a large sample, if only to determine whether they have any place on the roster over the next handful of seasons.

Chicago Bulls: Blow It Up

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    Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan
    Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozanMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    What are the Chicago Bulls trying to salvage?

    That's the question the franchise should ask before it considers whether it's possible to get Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan to see eye to eye.

    Suppose the two stars achieve some kind of harmony. What then? How good can this team realistically be in the short term with those two clicking? And is that level of hypothetical performance worth continuing to ignore the long-term ramifications of pressing on with this roster?

    It'd probably be best for the Bulls to seek outside counsel on those questions. Chicago decided it was logical to move two future first-rounders and Wendell Carter Jr. in a deal for Nikola Vučević.

    And it made the call on LaVine's max extension. Neither of those moves looks promising now, and the fact that the 2023 first-rounder the Bulls owe the Orlando Magic is only top-four protected makes bottoming out a potential lose-lose situation.

    Ultimately, the Bulls are not a contender and do not have the ability to become one with this roster—even if they get their two best players aligned. That means it's time to look hard at moving both LaVine and DeRozan, not to mention Vučević and anything else that isn't nailed down.

    Punting on the season may not keep that pick from conveying to the Magic, but trading veterans for other teams' future selections could help replenish the draft capital Chicago surrendered in what should now be regarded as a disastrous deal in 2021.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Finish What You Start

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    Donovan Mitchell
    Donovan MitchellJason Miller/Getty Images

    You could apply this resolution to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the broadest possible way by interpreting it as encouragement to run through the tape after what's been a strong start to the Donovan Mitchell era. The Cavs have answered plenty of questions and have every chance of finishing atop the East. A deep playoff run would cap a breakthrough season.

    The suggestion here is actually narrower. It pertains to a starting (and closing) lineup that simply isn't complete.

    Cleveland has four ace options with Darius Garland and Mitchell at the guard spots and the rangy, paint-protecting duo of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley up front. The small forward position remains the glaring weakness in an otherwise championship-caliber group.

    Dean Wade is probably the most sensible option because of his three-point shooting and 6'9", 228-pound size on defense, but he's been out since Dec. 2 with a shoulder injury. Caris LeVert doesn't bring the consistent spacing or defense, and Lamar Stevens (career 27.1 percent from deep) will be rightfully ignored by defenses until he proves he needs to be covered beyond the arc.

    Whether via trade, internal development or conjuration of a quality small forward from the ether, Cleveland needs to finish its first unit.

Dallas Mavericks: Explore New Ideas

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    Luka Dončić
    Luka DončićJordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

    The Dallas Mavericks have ranked among the top 10 in offensive efficiency in three of the last four years, finishing first in 2019-20 and no lower than 12th (2021-22) during that span. Clearly, their tendency to foist massive responsibilities on Luka Dončić yields results.

    It's difficult to make the argument that Dallas should change a situation that produces 60-point triple-doubles.

    Yet the Mavs' approach also yields fatigue within games and burnout during a season. Most troubling, it also leads to predictability in the playoffs.

    It's still unclear whether the Mavericks' extreme heliocentrism stems from tactical coaching decisions or Dončić's personal preference to operate as the be-all, end-all for his team's offense.

    Circumstantially, it's hard to imagine head coach Jason Kidd, one of the great distributors and ball-movers of all time, prefers to operate this way, with one guy leading the league in usage rate by a considerable margin. And former coach Rick Carlisle is presiding over an uptempo, movement-heavy attack with his new team, the Indiana Pacers.

    Then again, with Dončić out of action on Dec. 17 against the Cavaliers, Kemba Walker, of all people, played just under 42 minutes and racked up a 38.2 percent usage rate. The mystery of why Dallas plays this way persists.

    In the new year, the Mavs must at least explore the concept of a more balanced offensive approach. Anecdotally, they're using Dončić in the post and as a screener more often of late. But they should be curious about what he could do when attacking closeouts on the second side once in a while, or spotting up on the wing as Spencer Dinwiddie and Christian Wood operate a pick-and-roll.

    Obviously, Dončić's singular brilliance should make him the focal point of the Dallas offense. But a little more diversity could save his legs and force opponents to think on their feet a little more—two potential keys to upping the odds of a deep playoff run.

Denver Nuggets: Don't Worry About Appearances

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    Nikola Jokić
    Nikola JokićGarrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

    The Denver Nuggets just keep pulling through in the clutch, sometimes in especially dramatic fashion.

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    With some notable exceptions, Denver's late-game success has been pretty boring. Fueled by Nikola Jokić parading to the foul line with absurd frequency and a defense that squeezes the life out of opponents, the Nuggets tend to win close games by grinding them out.

    It's true that the Nuggets can't expect teams to keep hitting one of every five clutch three-pointers they attempt, and there's no chance Jokić will continue getting to the stripe 23.8 times per 100 clutch possessions.

    But who cares how the wins are coming? Denver is integrating multiple new rotation pieces—Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, rookie Christian Braun—and still hasn't gotten anything close to what it expects from Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr.

    The Nuggets should bank these victories and keep pushing for the West's No. 1 spot unapologetically. If nothing else, these suspect late-game successes will build confidence while the roster comes together over the second half of the season. Wins are wins and should be embraced, regardless of how they come.

Detroit Pistons: Look on the Bright Side

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    Killian Hayes
    Killian HayesScott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

    Cade Cunningham's season-ending shin surgery will slow his development and delay valuable chemistry-building reps with Jaden Ivey until next year. It will also make it harder for the Detroit Pistons to win games in 2022-23, which ups their odds of acquiring a blue-chip prospect through the draft—a must for a team that can't be sure its roster includes a true cornerstone.

    That glass-half-full thinking will help Detroit survive what's sure to be a rough run from January to April. Already featuring the league's worst record and second-lowest net rating, the Pistons will only be favored to win a handful of games before season's end.

    Little rays of hope will matter, and the next few months should be about finding and treasuring them.

    For one thing, Detroit can look to Killian Hayes' quiet progress—which will resume following a suspension for this. The third-year guard, picked seventh in 2020, is on a quest to shed the "bust" label.

    While still toting some ugly full-season numbers (sub-50.0 percent true shooting and a single-digit scoring average), the lefty guard hit 36.2 percent of his threes in November and handed out 6.6 assists through his first 14 December contests.

    Ivey will get a chance to hone his unrefined game in a larger role, Jalen Duren will be allowed to spread his (very long) wings and Hayes can keep striving to justify his draft slot.

    The Pistons are going to be bad. The search for some good can sustain them in 2023.

Golden State Warriors: Practice Self-Care

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    Draymond Green
    Draymond GreenThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    There's not much the Golden State Warriors can do to cover for the absence of Stephen Curry for as long as the two-time MVP remains sidelined with a shoulder injury. But in addition to using this starless stretch to give their younger players more of an opportunity to learn on the fly, the Warriors can also focus on issues that have plagued them with and without Steph in the lineup.

    Golden State allows the most opponent free-throw attempts per game in the league, a problem on its own but one doubly troubling because the Warriors also attempt the fewest foul shots.

    That discrepancy puts the Dubs in a hole every game, and because they also turn the ball over more than anyone but the Houston Rockets, it's not like they can make up the difference by winning the possession battle.

    There are loads of explanations for Golden State's uneven play this season. The home-road splits are confounding, and the generally disappointing play of everyone under age 25 raises long-term worries. But if the Warriors could simply stop fouling and throwing the ball away, it'd help stabilize things in Curry's absence and hopefully build habits that'd endure upon his return.

    You'd think a team with four titles would know that the worst thing you can do is beat yourself. It's time for the Warriors to stop the sabotage.

Houston Rockets: Run Every Day

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    Jalen Green
    Jalen GreenCarmen Mandato/Getty Images

    At some point, everybody has made the resolution to get in shape when the calendar flips—maybe by jogging a few miles once or twice a week.

    No one needs to commit to running more than the Houston Rockets.

    It makes no sense that Houston doesn't push the pace. This is a team built on recently drafted players in their early 20s, exactly the types of injury-free athletes who can race up and down the floor for four quarters without paying the soreness and joint-ache toll the next day. There may not be five more impressive open-floor sprinters in the league than Jalen Green, for example.

    Yet there the Rockets are, 29th in transition frequency, trailing only the Mavericks, who never run because Luka Dončić likes a slow pace, and Luka gets what Luka wants.

    Houston doesn't run when it gets steals, and it doesn't run when it corrals a defensive rebound. Perhaps most frustrating of all, the Rockets are 12th in the NBA in points per play on transition chances. They're pretty good when they speed up—certainly better than they are in the half court, where they rank dead last in scoring efficiency.

    Houston turns the ball over a ton, and pushing the action in transition could exacerbate the problem. But who cares? It's clear the Rockets are better in an unstructured, uptempo attack than they are in a bogged-down half-court slog. They need to open up the throttle a little in 2023.

Indiana Pacers: Be Decisive

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    Tyrese Haliburton (left) and Myles Turner
    Tyrese Haliburton (left) and Myles TurnerIssac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

    It obviously matters how the Indiana Pacers settle the Myles Turner situation, but it's actually more important that one of the league's longest-running "will they, won't they?" plot lines simply reaches a resolution.

    Turner's name has been coming up in trade chatter for multiple seasons, yet now we're hearing reports from The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania that the eighth-year veteran is in renegotiation-and-extension talks with Indiana.

    This isn't an endorsement of either plan. It could make sense for the Pacers to keep Turner on a reasonable extension, and it could also behoove them to deal him.

    Indy just needs to make a decision.

    Turner's looming free agency is one reason for urgency. The Pacers can't let him walk for nothing after this season. But the bigger driver is the potential impact of Turner's undecided status on a young roster.

    If a long-tenured vet can be strung along, dangled in trade talks and generally stuck in a spot of perpetual limbo, how can the organization build trust with and expect full commitment from the crop of players expected to lead the next generation?

    Everyone understands or soon learns that the NBA is a business, but there are lots of ways to run a business. Setting a precedent that a player's future can remain totally, publicly uncertain for literal years on end isn't one of the good ones.

Los Angeles Clippers: Be a Little More Boring

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    Terance Mann
    Terance MannNic Antaya/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Clippers love a comeback...maybe a little too much.

    After they blew a massive lead, came back with a run of their own and downed the Detroit Pistons in overtime on Dec. 26, The Athletic's Law Murray noted: "The Clippers are 20-15, but out of those wins, they tied or trailed after leads of more than 10 points nine times."

    Nine times!

    An optimist might view the Clips' penchant for building, surrendering and regaining leads as a sign of resilience. A pessimist could call the 20-15 mark through 35 high-wire games the product of unsustainable good luck. A realist would simply observe that the best teams build leads and hold them, and that the Clippers (now 21-16) have only consistently managed to do the first part of that two step.

    With stars in and out of the lineup and the attendant minimization of the regular season's importance, it's understandable that Los Angeles is prone to these lapses. How can players be expected to give their full focus throughout every contest when the organization is basically operating as if the months between October and April only kind of matter?

    For the Clippers to become the contender they want to be, they need to turn more of their games into snoozers.

Los Angeles Lakers: Don't Do Anything Rash

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    LeBron James (left) and Russell Westbrook
    LeBron James (left) and Russell WestbrookJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

    There's no realistic deal out there that will elevate the Los Angeles Lakers to contention, a fact their inactivity on the trade market suggests they understand. Anthony Davis' foot injury should only push L.A. further from a draft-pick and potentially cap-space-mortgaging swap.

    Of course, with LeBron James pointing out roster flaws even while punting publicly on questions about the need for trades, you'd have to imagine there's at least some level of internal pressure from an all-timer clinging to the last wisps of his prime. When you're in your age-38 season, patience is and should be in short supply.

    The Lakers still have to resist pushing their relatively small pile of chips in on this season. Russell Westbrook's contract will expire this summer without costing them a pair of first-rounders to unload, and the books will be relatively clean.

    Maybe L.A. won't quite have max-level room, but the path to adding a third star—perhaps Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan or Bradley Beal—via trade will be clearer after this season.

    James has defied the aging curve better than anyone in history, so there are worse bets to make than trusting he'll be able to do it for one more year in 2023-24.

Memphis Grizzlies: Keep Talking

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    Ja Morant
    Ja MorantJamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

    If you don't believe in yourself, nobody else will.

    The Memphis Grizzlies, aka Team Ducking No Smoke, have a surplus of confidence and no compunction about broadcasting it. Ja Morant and his teammates talk that talk, and it's glorious—even when it backfires.

    The Athletic @TheAthletic

    Klay Thompson kept the receipts on Jaren Jackson Jr.'s tweet from March…<br><br>"I can't wait to retweet that thing… freaking bum." <a href=""></a>

    This year, with the West a parity-riddled logjam, Memphis has as much reason to believe as ever. As expected, Morant and the Grizzlies are projecting self-assuredness whenever asked.

    Some might call it petty or immature or provocative, but this team's identity is wrapped up in its brashness. This is who the Grizzlies are, and they're unapologetic. That makes them endearing.

    Sure, another playoff exit at the hands of a ticked-off opponent wouldn't be a great look. But deep down, we probably all wish our favorite team was so certain of itself.

Miami Heat: Heal Up

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    Tyler Herro (left), Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo
    Tyler Herro (left), Jimmy Butler and Bam AdebayoJustin Ford/Getty Images

    "Get healthy" would be a good resolution for every NBA team, but we've saved it for the Miami Heat because the unavailability of their best players has such a one-to-one relationship with their disappointing play this season.

    When Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro are on the floor together, Miami outscores opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions. The problem: That group has only seen the court for 332 total minutes spread across 16 games.

    That trio is critical to the Heat's success because of its ability to score in half-court settings.

    Miami ranks 18th at 95.5 points per 100 possessions in the half court overall, but the Butler-Adebayo-Herro trio produces a much more respectable 98.0 points per 100 when the game slows down. That might seem like a small margin, but Miami needs every spare point it can find as it struggles to stay out of the bottom five in overall offensive efficiency.

Milwaukee Bucks: Diversify

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    Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo (center)
    Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo (center)Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

    The Milwaukee Bucks' struggle to beat the Boston Celtics is the definition of a first-world NBA problem. Everyone has a hard time with Boston, 2022's Eastern Conference representative in the Finals and a team that has a real opportunity to be the last one standing this time around.

    It's still worrisome for the Bucks that Boston recently exposed a flaw that keeps cropping up at the worst times against the best teams—one that has dogged head coach Mike Budenholzer for his entire career: The Bucks are too predictable.

    "We haven't grown," Giannis Antetokounmpo told reporters after the Celtics downed the Bucks on Christmas.

    Milwaukee has been defined by its adherence to particular styles on both ends. It prefers to drop Brook Lopez in pick-and-roll coverage on D, and it took years to recognize Antetokounmpo's value as a roll man on offense.

    It's hard to argue with the bottom line; the Bucks won a title in 2021. But the Celtics' ability to force uncomfortable switches, attack from different angles and vary their defensive coverages exposes the Bucks' more static thinking by comparison.

    Antetokounmpo isn't totally correct. The Bucks have adapted over the years, making small tweaks on both ends. But the Celtics knocked Milwaukee out of last season's playoffs with a blueprint that looked a lot like the one that worked well on Christmas.

    The Bucks have to accelerate their adaptations and diversify their approach. Otherwise, the other thing that won't change is their inability to beat Boston.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Establish Connections

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    Anthony Edwards (left) and Rudy Gobert
    Anthony Edwards (left) and Rudy GobertDavid Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

    Anthony Edwards showed out during a three-game winning streak in mid-December with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns out of action, and that's a problem. It's indicative of the disconnect between the team's best players and, particularly, between Ant and Gobert.

    Edwards racking up an average of 27.7 points and 9.0 assists in those victories over Oklahoma City, Chicago and Dallas probably should have been the expectation.

    When Edwards told reporters, "I'm having the most fun I've ever had playing basketball" after the blowout win over the Bulls, it squared with his comments from earlier in the season about how smaller lineups were better for him.

    Add to that the jarring infrequency with which Edwards has passed the ball to Gobert, and it's been clear all year that the pieces aren't fitting in Minnesota.

    We can't throw dirt on the Wolves' reconstructed roster. Not this early in the experiment, and not when Edwards has so much room to improve. If you believe in him as a franchise cornerstone, you have to give him the opportunity to figure this out—even if Gobert is a diminished version of his Utah Jazz self.

    Besides, we've seen enough flashes of how easy the Gobert-Edwards partnership should be to keep faith that higher levels are ahead.

    To reach them, Edwards, Gobert and every other Timberwolves player must commit to the common cause of making one another better.

New Orleans Pelicans: Figure Out Who's Essential

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    Jonas Valančiūnas (center)
    Jonas Valančiūnas (center)Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

    Depth is a valuable commodity, and the New Orleans Pelicans have more of it than most. But now that this team has proved over several stretches that it can play at an extremely high level, it's time to think harder about which eight players it can lean on for heavy minutes in a playoff series.

    In other words, the focus needs to shift from quantity to quality. And even more specifically, the Pels have to determine which of their higher-end players make sense in the big-picture conception of the organization.

    Does CJ McCollum bring the defense and secondary playmaking necessary to support Zion Williamson, who has shown he needs to be the primary on-ball threat? Can Jonas Valančiūnas find a way to defend the rim and operate in space against downsized opposing offenses? Can Brandon Ingram provide enough off-ball and defensive value (while hopefully staying healthy) to be Zion's best running mate?

    This isn't a trade-them-all endorsement of sweeping change. It's just an acknowledgement that New Orleans needs to a) see what its rotation looks like with everyone healthy, b) determine which members of it are essential and c) decide where and how improvements can be made.

    New Orleans is fortunate to have several young keepers on rookie-scale or otherwise cheap deals—Trey Murphy III, Herbert Jones, Dyson Daniels, Jose Alvarado—so the real trick is deciding which of the team's many useful veterans are the right ones to pair with the younger core.

New York Knicks: Get Your House in Order

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    RJ Barrett
    RJ BarrettMike Stobe/Getty Images

    Maybe get your home in order would be a better fit, but you get the idea: The New York Knicks need to figure out how to win on their own floor if that season-altering eight-game winning streak from Dec. 4 to Dec. 20 is going to mean anything.

    After beating the Golden State Warriors in Madison Square Garden to add the eighth victory in that run, the Knicks lost three straight at home. That stretch dropped their record at MSG to 8-10, by far the worst home mark of any team in the playoff race and the third-worst in the conference overall.

    Before he lacerated his finger early in Tuesday's loss to the Mavericks, RJ Barrett had been playing (and shooting) better than he had at any point this season, Jalen Brunson remains one of the most effective new additions in the league and Quentin Grimes has been absolutely striping it from deep in December.

    Those are all pieces of a puzzle that should be yielding better results, particularly at home.

    Alternate resolution: Sleep only in hotels from now on. Maybe that'd put the Knicks in the winning mindset they've only seemed to find on the road.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Enjoy the Dirty Work

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    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
    Shai Gilgeous-AlexanderSet Number: X164261 TK1

    Counting this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have bottom-eight ranks in offensive efficiency three years running. They're no strangers to shooting struggles and prolonged scoring droughts.

    The difference now is that they've leaned into the grunt work, both defensively and on the boards, to a large enough extent to offset their familiar issues with putting the ball in the basket.

    OKC is forcing turnovers at the third-highest clip in the league. While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets and deserves credit for racking up 30-point games and drilling buzzer-beaters, he should also be acknowledged for his activity on D. He's fifth in the league in total steals and one of three players to rank in the top 10 in that category and total points scored, joining Luka Dončić and Anthony Edwards.

    Kenrich Williams, Luguentz Dort and Josh Giddey are all in the top quartile at their position in offensive rebound rate, which is helping generate additional possessions for a team that needs extra shots to make up in volume what it lacks in efficiency.

    The Thunder must continue to embrace the non-glamorous work that has helped them stick in the play-in race for nearly half the season. In other words: Muck the game up, keep it close and trust SGA to win it late.

Orlando Magic: Consider Consolidation

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    Markelle Fultz
    Markelle FultzScott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

    Markelle Fultz has been a steadily positive influence since he returned from injury Nov. 30, organizing an Orlando Magic team that lacks quality guard play and helping trigger a surprising December surge that included two wins over the Boston Celtics.

    But as solid as he's been, Fultz isn't the long-term answer at the point.

    The Magic should look to swap out a few of their superfluous bigs to bring back someone who'd make more sense than Fultz over a five-year time horizon. Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs have had their moments, but Orlando should be targeting options with higher ceilings.

    With Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr. and the emergent Bol Bol all looking like keepers in the frontcourt, Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac (remember him?) are expendable. Gary Harris and Terrence Ross could serve as salary filler, though it's hard to imagine the latter will be in demand amid a real decline at age 31.

    D'Angelo Russell is ticketed for unrestricted free agency, and Fred VanVleet can get there via a player option this summer, making both somewhat risky trade acquisitions. But those types of playmaking and spacing guards should be attainable and would provide upgrades at a woefully thin position.

    The Magic don't need to become play-in-chasing buyers, but it'd make sense to at least balance the roster in the new year.

Philadelphia 76ers: Keep the Ball Hopping

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    James Harden
    James HardenDavid Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

    When sorting a team's statistical splits by wins and losses, it's always difficult to separate signal from noise. Plus, almost every category—field-goal percentage, rebounding, points (obviously) and free-throw attempts—looks better in victory than defeat. Play more effectively, and you usually win. Who'd have thunk?

    For the Philadelphia 76ers, though, one split in particular reveals a key to success: assists. They average about four more of them per game in their wins, and it's clear everyone involved understands that inflated assist totals are indicators that the Sixers are playing offense the way they want to.

    "Shooting over 50 percent, the ball is moving, the floor is wide open. That is exactly what we're talking about," Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters after a Dec. 13 win over the Sacramento Kings. "Tobias (Harris) had nine assists, James (Harden) had 15. It just says that they're moving the ball, that they're playing together, our spacing is correct. It's good to see."

    Harden spends more time on the ball than any of his teammates, and when he's most decisive, it triggers all the best qualities in Philadelphia's attack. That includes everything from pick-and-roll sets with Joel Embiid to drive-and-kicks for Tobias Harris to hit-ahead outlets that get open-floor threats such as Shake Milton opportunities to score.

    Philadelphia's mid-December run during a long homestand featured some of the best and most unselfish ball the team has played all season. If the rock keeps moving, there's no reason it can't extend into January and beyond.

Phoenix Suns: Play the Long Game

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    Devin Booker
    Devin BookerGarrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

    Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams copped to pushing Devin Booker a little too hard, an admission made as the superstar guard sat out games against the Lakers, Washington Wizards and Grizzlies from Dec. 19 to 23 with a groin injury.

    Williams was referring to the 42 minutes Booker logged during a four-point win over the Pelicans on Dec. 17, a contest in which Booker racked up 58 points on 35 shots from the field.

    Despite the seeming acknowledgment that regular-season success shouldn't come at the cost of a key player's health, there was Booker taking the floor again on Christmas against the Denver Nuggets.

    He lasted four minutes before aggravating the groin injury again and leaving the game for good. He's expected to be out a minimum of four weeks.

    The Suns have dealt with Jae Crowder's absence all year, plus injuries that have knocked Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson out of action for long stretches. You could forgive Williams for wanting his best player on the floor, and it's understandable that Booker would want to be out there to carry his short-handed, banged-up team.

    But the Suns have to prioritize April, May and June over December and January. If that means making sure Booker gets extra rest so he can get back to 100 percent, maybe at the cost of a slide in the standings, so be it.

Portland Trail Blazers: Lead by Example

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    Damian Lillard (left) and Anfernee Simons
    Damian Lillard (left) and Anfernee SimonsSam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

    Anfernee Simons' minus-1.2 defensive estimated plus/minus is the worst in the league of anyone who's played as many minutes as he has. While the playing-time variable limits the field because Simons is among the top 20 in total court time, it also emphasizes the sheer volume of his defensive damage.

    It's easier to survive with a suspect defender at a guard spot than it is at center. But the Portland Trail Blazers also employ Damian Lillard (a slight positive by DEPM this year but historically uneven at best) alongside Simons in the backcourt.

    Those two, combined, give opponents two easy options to exploit. Much of the Blazers' No. 23 rank in defensive efficiency owes to the fact that offenses can create advantages at the point of attack against either guard.

    Josh Hart and Jerami Grant have the mobility and activity levels to cover for mistakes, and Jusuf Nurkić is solid on the back line. But until the Blazers' top two high-usage players resolve to compete harder defensively, it'll be difficult to take this team seriously as a threat to win a playoff series.

Sacramento Kings: Keep Believing

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    Domantas Sabonis (left) and De'Aaron Fox
    Domantas Sabonis (left) and De'Aaron FoxRocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

    Maybe this is more for fans of the Sacramento Kings than the team itself, but when you haven't seen the playoffs since 2006, it can be difficult to ditch the skepticism. Both the franchise and its supporters should keep the faith.

    Sacramento's offense is legit. Domantas Sabonis is a capable hub, and as long as he's not hampered too badly by an avulsion fracture in his non-shooting hand, he can keep the Kings offense humming.

    De'Aaron Fox may never be an All-Star with so many studs at his position in the West, but he's posting his highest ever box plus-minus and true shooting percentage while turning the ball over less frequently than ever. His growth, like Sabonis' steadily positive impact, is real.

    With those two doing the heavy lifting and Malik Monk leading an adrenaline-spiking bench crew, the offense can absolutely sustain its top-10 ranking.

    There's even reason to believe on D, as strange as it is to contemplate that for one of the crummiest defenses in recent NBA history.

    Though the Kings only rank 21st on that end (which would tie for their second-best finish since 2010-11), they're getting the process right. Based on the shots they allow, the Kings should rank eighth in expected opponent effective field-goal percentage.

    For the first time in years, it's safe to believe.

San Antonio Spurs: Admit the Need for Help

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    Tre Jones
    Tre Jones Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

    There are some good explanations for the San Antonio Spurs' reluctance to add a capable backup point guard behind Tre Jones.

    Perhaps they view this year's race to the bottom of the standings as an opportunity to explore the playmaking skills of wing-sized players such as Jeremy Sochan. Or maybe the team cares more about developing a switching defense than it does about making sure second units have conventional distributors.

    It's also true that Blake Wesley's MCL sprain and the waiver of Josh Primo removed a couple of options at the reserve point guard spot.

    Still, even if benefits exist with San Antonio's unusual approach, the costs seem too high. Because while there's value in stretching the playmaking skills of Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and Sochan, the lack of a conventional lead guard other than Jones means all of the Spurs' young prospects are missing out on a handful of easy setups every game.

    Adversity fosters growth, but the Spurs are making it harder on their developing players than necessary.

    The Warriors signed Ty Jerome to a two-way deal, and he's been valuable as a low-mistake organizer, exactly what the Spurs need. Game managers are a dime a dozen. San Antonio should admit it needs one.

Toronto Raptors: Face the Facts

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    Pascal Siakam (left), OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes
    Pascal Siakam (left), OG Anunoby and Scottie BarnesJordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

    For the better part of two years, the Toronto Raptors have been trying to buck trends by fielding forward-heavy lineups. They were searching for a first-mover advantage, with the product being five-man units composed of players between 6'7" and 6'9".

    In an NBA increasingly prizing defensive versatility and multi-skilled offensive players, it wasn't the worst idea.

    Toronto's roster construction has had its advantages. The Raptors have forced tons of turnovers and thrived in transition over the last couple of years. But they've also suffered from a lack of shot creation in the half court and had a hard time controlling the defensive glass.

    It turns out conventional positions—particularly paint-penetrating guards and rim-protecting bigs—have their uses.

    The Raptors still won 48 games a year ago and have the point differential of a team that should collect roughly 40 this season. That's not exactly failure, but it remains disappointing if only because most of the same flaws with the roster that arose last year are still present.

    Toronto more or less ran it back and is getting the same unbalanced results. There's no reason to expect a ceiling higher than 2021-22's first-round exit, and the floor is considerably lower than that.

    Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. both have player options for next season that could send both into free agency. Moving one or both ahead of the trade deadline could bring back the downhill guards or interior bigs the Raptors need. But pulling the trigger on a deal would require facing the truth: This experiment hasn't worked as well as Toronto hoped.

Utah Jazz: Go Get John Collins

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    John Collins
    John CollinsMitchell Leff/Getty Images

    This is about as blunt as resolutions get. Forget "be more present" or "look for the good in people." We're not messing around with vague suggestions. The Utah Jazz get a directive instead.

    According to Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic, a potential three-team deal that would have brought Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins to Utah "failed to gain traction when Utah asked for multiple first-round picks."

    Granted, the reported trade scenario would have required the Jazz to send out Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley, two rotation-caliber players on reasonable deals who've helped drive surprising success in Utah this season.

    But Collins averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds and shot 40.1 percent from three in 2019-20, his age-22 campaign. Though his regular-season production and role have diminished steadily since, he was also highly effective, including on defense, during Atlanta's 2021 run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Even in the second season of a five-year, $125 million contract, Collins is far from a distressed asset. At 25, he's among the league's best buy-low candidates.

    If Utah's insistence on getting first-round picks to take on Collins is anything more than posturing, it's a massive mistake. This is a player in his early prime with All-Star upside, not some dead-money albatross. The Jazz need to go get him.

Washington Wizards: Trade Bradley Beal

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    Bradley Beal
    Bradley BealMelissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

    Another on-the-nose resolution to close things out.

    The optics of trading Bradley Beal halfway through his first season of a five-year, $251 million deal (insert obligatory mention of no-trade clause here) would be bad.

    Worse: playing the next half-decade locked into the fantasy that meaningful success is possible with a good player making megastar money. Game it out, and it's clear the Washington Wizards' prospects are bleak.

    The roster is bereft of young talent with star upside, and the path to acquiring players like that is complicated by a rotation filled with veterans just good enough to keep Washington out of the choicest lottery position.

    Kristaps Porziņģis and Kyle Kuzma are quality pieces, but both are likely ticketed for free agency this summer via player options, and neither should be viewed as a long-term answer at the prices they'll command on the market.

    It's not a given that Washington will be able to get positive value in the form of players and picks for Beal. That's another indictment of his contract. That said, with a league short on sellers, the first six weeks of 2023 might be the Wizards' best chance to extract value and trigger the reset they need.

    The only thing worse than making one bad decision (signing Beal to that deal) is making several more in service of it. Washington can't continue to operate as if this roster and its central star have playoff trips, let alone contention, in their future.

    Stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass and Dunks & Threes. Accurate through Dec. 30. Salary info via Spotrac.

    Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@gt_hughes), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, where he appears with Bleacher Report's Dan Favale.