1 Burning Question Every NBA Team Must Answer in 2014-15 Training Camp
For every NBA team, training camp is a search for answers. With camp finally upon us for all 30 teams, it's time to discuss what each side's questions are.
Whether it's teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers or Oklahoma City Thunder that plan on title contention, or teams like the Philadelphia 76ers or Orlando Magic that are plotting a much more long-term plan, training camp serves as a fine opportunity to see what's being worked with and what could be in store for this season.
Some teams have rotation issues to work out this month. Others must figure out bigger-picture questions before technical problems can be fixed. Every organization has something on the front burner during camp, and ahead, we discuss the situation for each NBA team.
How long will Al Horford's recovery period take?
It's easy to forget, but before Al Horford went down with a season-ending torn pectoral muscle last December, the Atlanta Hawks were the third-best team in the East behind Miami and Indiana.
Through 29 games, he was averaging a career-high 18.6 points and 8.4 boards on another career-best 56.7 field-goal percentage. At 28 years old, Horford is in the midst of his prime NBA years, and the Hawks were able to make the playoffs last season—albeit in a severely weakened East—without him. That's encouraging.
What remains to be seen in camp, though, is how quickly Horford can return to that peak form we saw last season. The team has said he'll be 100 percent healthy by opening night, but he sat out the team's first preseason game Monday. As of this week, Horford has been cleared for two-on-two contact, per Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
With Horford in the lineup, Atlanta has the potential to slide into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack, so long as he's performing like he did last year. But he needs to get back on the practice floor soon to avoid a rusty start over the team's first month—one that features seven bouts against playoff teams from last season, in addition to a matchup at the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 15.
Can Marcus Smart handle the starting role right away?
With Rajon Rondo set to miss the early portion of 2014-15 with his broken hand, the competition at point guard was solved before the Celtics even broke camp—at least in the short term. Marcus Smart will be thrown into the fire as Boston's starting point guard in Rondo's absence. But is he ready?
Luckily for the C's, a team with few expectations at all for 2014-15, it's not necessarily a huge deal if Smart flounders in the early goings. But they'd surely like to see something out of this year's No. 6 overall pick.
Smart impressed during the summer league and displayed an intensity on both sides of the ball. Like Rondo, though, his jump shot does need work, which could make this a tricky pairing once the 28-year-old returns.
The Celtics are still a growing unit under Brad Stevens, and this season—much like last year—is all about development. A system is slowly being implemented, and the team expects Smart to have a prime role moving forward. Some encouraging signs right off the bat as a starter, though, would make Boston's situation much more favorable and allow the team to feel comfortable with moving Rondo in a trade.
During an early going that came with elevated expectations, last year's Brooklyn Nets were one of the most disappointing teams in the NBA. On Jan. 1, the team was 10-21 and in a three-way tie for 10th place in the East. The team's nucleus never was able to establish positive traction, and it wasn't until after Brook Lopez went down for the season that Brooklyn began to push toward a playoff seed.
Smaller lineups worked for the Nets under Jason Kidd once Lopez was no longer a contributor. Kevin Garnett logged most of his minutes at center, and Paul Pierce thrived as a small-ball 4. As a result, the team posted the second-best record in the East from January on at 34-17, per NBA.com/Stats (subscription required).
This season, without Kidd and Paul Pierce but with the return of Lopez, the team could face obstacles in regard to spacing offensively. Lopez and Garnett will presumably both start under Lionel Hollins, who has experience playing a pair of natural big men nightly in Memphis.
One encouraging sign for the Nets is that the team wasn't outscored by opponents per 100 possessions when the pair shared the floor. They hardly outscored the other team—they posted a plus-0.1 net rating with that two-man lineup—but it's better than a negative number.
With more experience together and under guidance from Hollins, who has run out these types of lineups effectively, there is hope that the pairing could be a productive one.
Who will the offense run through?
The new-look Charlotte Hornets figure to be a part of the East's playoff picture, but there's plenty of figuring out to do first.
The team signed Lance Stephenson to a three-year deal for significant money, and he'll presumably play a major role on both ends. But he'll be joining a starting lineup with Al Jefferson, who proved to be a reliable focal point, and Kemba Walker, who is developing into a legitimate threat at point guard.
Jefferson, with a 29.3 usage rating, and Walker, with a 25.8 mark, led the team among players with at least 250 minutes played last season. Stephenson has experience conceding power to other options in the offense with Indiana—his 19.4 usage rating was seventh on the team last year—but after some years as a secondary option, and in a new situation where he was brought in to make an impact, Stephenson may prefer a bit more involvement within the offense than in the past.
Training camp will help the Hornets discover how the trio can work together. With two guards in the lineup who are coming off seasons with assist percentages in the 20s, they should be able to work things out fairly quickly.
Can Derrick Rose coexist with other contributors on offense?
Of course, the entire Chicago Bulls season is contingent on Derrick Rose's health. But assuming he's finally ready to withstand a season, there are basketball-related questions involving Rose that still need answers.
Paramount among them involves the team's sudden influx of offensively capable ancillary parts. After signing Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic and drafting Doug McDermott, the Bulls now have legitimate sources of offense besides Rose. In previous years, there was no debate as to who was taking the final shot with a decision on the line for Chicago. Now, at the very least, the Bulls have options.
Asked about this particular scenario by media members during camp, Rose had no problem confirming who was going to be the go-to man when it counts the most.
"Me. I think everybody knows that," he said, according to Bulls.com's Sam Smith. "It’s no doubt that I’m going to have the ball."
This method is all Rose has ever known in the NBA, but with actual talent around him on offense this season, his situation could be different. Chicago will need to work out these types of scenarios early on to give key scorers a clear vision of their roles late in games.
Can Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love adjust to secondary roles?
Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are facing far more promising futures in the short term, and they both have LeBron James to thank. But with their newfound league-wide importance comes adjustments they've never needed to consider before: not being the best player on their team.
Since the 2010-11 season, Love has averaged 17.1 shot attempts per game with the Minnesota Timberwolves as the team's clear-cut workhorse. Irving had achieved similar status since being drafted by Cleveland in 2011, averaging 16.9 attempts from the field over his three NBA seasons.
With James on their side, neither will need to end possessions on their own nearly as much. LeBron does a great job of opening opportunities for his teammates, but he's still the undoubted first option. Both Love and Irving will be undergoing this change of role for the first time in their basketball careers—Love even averaged the most shots on a 2007 UCLA team with three other NBA starters.
There will be an adjustment period—remember the Miami Heat's 9-8 start in 2010-11?—but with all three athletes being willing playmakers, it shouldn't be long before Cleveland sets itself apart from the pack in the East.
Can they survive at point guard with the current personnel?
The Dallas Mavericks improved a ton this offseason. They re-acquired Tyson Chandler to man the middle, gaining a strong defensive presence under the rim, and presented Chandler Parsons with an offer the Rockets just couldn't match—not to mention re-signing Dirk Nowitzki on a very team-friendly deal.
But with the addition of Chandler came the subtraction of Jose Calderon, opening up the starting point guard role.
Raymond Felton, fresh off a career-worst season in many respects, also came over from the Knicks in that deal. Devin Harris re-signed with the Mavs, and Jameer Nelson came over after a decade with the Orlando Magic. As of now, Nelson is the one likely being pegged to start. Per Tim McMahon of ESPN Dallas, coach Rick Carlisle said Sunday:
'When we were recruiting him this summer, I told him we were looking for the best guy to be a starter for us,' Carlisle said of Nelson. 'I really like Harris off the bench. That said, I think Harris is one of our three or four best players. But we’ve had a history here of bringing some of our better guys off the bench.
'At this point, Devin and I have talked about it and continue to talk about it. He’s willing to do anything. He wants to be a Maverick and wants to win.
'I like Jameer in that spot and Felton, he’s going to be out the first four games. So if there were some tea leaves here, that’s what it may look like. But it’s early to commit to anything. We got to see how it goes in games.'
Nelson is coming off shooting the second-worst field-goal percentage of his career last season at 39.4 percent. He put up his fourth-lowest point average at 12.1, matched a career-worst efficiency rating at 13.9 and logged his second-worst win shares per 48 minutes at 0.62.
Harris shot even worse from the floor than Nelson at 37.8 percent last season over 40 games with the Mavs but averaged 4.5 assists over 20 minutes per contest. Felton averaged a career-low 9.7 points and a second-worst-ever mark of 5.6 assists per game with New York last year.
Dallas has experience at the position, but the trio of 30-and-over point guards will need to improve from last season to propel the Mavericks toward the top of the West's contenders.
Can the returning players stay healthy?
After missing all or most of the 2013-14 season, Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson all expect to return to the Denver Nuggets at full strength after recovering from ACL tears. JaVale McGee, after playing in just 10 games last season with a right fibula injury, is also back for camp.
Gallinari and Robinson, both former teammates with the Knicks, are two of Denver's more offensively gifted contributors. Gallinari was averaging a career-high 16.2 points in 2012-13 as the starting small forward before going down, and last season Robinson was contributing 10 points off the bench with 38 percent three-point shooting.
Hickson and McGee were the team's top two centers. Hickson was putting up 12 points and nine boards last year before his season ended, and McGee seemed to have finally been progressing with the Nugs through 2012-13.
Without all the missing pieces, Denver didn't stand a chance in the West. It finished 36-46, 11th in the conference.
According to The Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey, Gallinari and Robinson have participated in light contact so far in camp, nearing the end of their road to recovery. None of the four players participated in Monday's preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers, though Hickson says his knee is at full health (he's suspended for the season's first five games upon being declared healthy).
It won't be easy, and it may not come right away, but if all four players can return to form before it's too late, the Nuggets can potentially slide into the West's top eight seeds.
What does the team actually have in Josh Smith?
Stan Van Gundy has been called upon to solve the Detroit Pistons' misshapen front line. The most difficult part of that task will be solving where Josh Smith fits into the equation.
Van Gundy had previously assured Smith he'd be remaining with the team this season, and judging from reports around camp thus far, 2015 may treat him much more kindly than last season.
Detroit curiously had Smith playing the majority of his minutes at small forward last season for the first time since he was 21, and the results were predictably disappointing. According to MLive.com's David Mayo, Smith has exclusively been playing power forward so far this month and has added muscle to better compete against bigs this year. Per Van Gundy:
He's getting back down the floor defensively. I think he's trying to do the things that we want done and I think people notice those things. ...
He understands it as well as I do, to get that kind of credit, you have to win. That's the bottom line, you have to win, then people start looking at you differently. If you're a guy that people perceive as being a major reason for winning, that changes everything.
Van Gundy seems to believe Smith can be a major part of the puzzle in Detroit, but with Andre Drummond emerging as a star at center, either Smith or Greg Monroe will presumably be the odd man out at times, with both being natural 4's.
Being honest, SVG told Vincent Goodwill Jr. of The Detroit News that he's not quite sure of how it'll play out this season—except for the fact that Smith, Monroe and Drummond won't be included in very many lineups together:
Maybe what emerges is those three guys start at 3-4-5. I don't anticipate that would be the case but even if they do, that won't be the lineup that gets the most minutes. It can be effective against some teams and some lineups.
What we'll do in the preseason is start a different group with different rotations almost every game and look at every team in the East and say, on a night-to-night basis, what's the best way for us to start and rotate our players?
If Van Gundy can figure out a way to balance the three players' minutes while putting them in positions to succeed, Detroit could be as good as the seventh- or eighth-best team in the East. But as Mo Cheeks found out last season, it's a very daunting task.
Golden State Warriors
What will the starting lineup look like?
Harrison Barnes faced fairly tall expectations in his sophomore campaign and failed in several aspects over the course of the 2013-14 season. Andre Iguodala missed a chunk of the season early on, but when he was on the floor, he provided Golden State with a legitimate two-way contributor.
Iggy started every game he played under Mark Jackson, with Barnes starting only 24 of his 78 games. But with Jackson out and Steve Kerr in, changes could be coming to that nucleus.
According to Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group in July, Kerr has looked into swapping the two players' roles:
Andre was the starter last year, and he very well may be this year. It all depends on combinations and who’s coming off the bench. I would say Andre is more of a ball-handler and a playmaker than Harrison. Harrison’s probably a little more of a scoring-minded player, so you have to factor all those things in when you decide who’s going to start and who’s going to come off the bench.
Iguodala shot 48 percent last season and 35 percent from three while bringing his trademark stingy defense to the table. He averaged nine points, five rebounds and four assists, and the Warriors were a ridiculous 18 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
But if Barnes' struggles in 2013-14 were, as Kerr proposes, a product of him playing with lesser teammates, then a move to the starting five could work out for everyone. Iguodala would then move into more of a ball-handling role on the second team and could help Shaun Livingston run the offense. Leung has reported that Kerr likes the idea of Iggy as a point forward, which only adds fuel to the fire regarding his potential shift to the second team.
Is the roster deep enough?
The Houston Rockets' less-than-ideal summer began with declining Chandler Parsons' team option for less than $1 million—a move that gave Houston the right to match any offer this offseason, maintaining control over the negotiating process.
Omer Asik was lost to the New Orleans Pelicans for a mere draft pick, while Jeremy Lin was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers with two future picks for the rights to a European player. Both moves were made to create cap space to sign a max-level free agent, forming a Big Three that Daryl Morey has been eyeing for years.
But after LeBron James went back home to Cleveland, Carmelo Anthony returned to the Knicks and the Heat retained Chris Bosh, Morey's missing third star was nowhere to be found. That, and he lost Parsons to the Dallas Mavericks.
Now the Rockets' favorable platoon of Lin and Patrick Beverley is gone, and Beverley's understudies are Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan and Troy Daniels. Backing Harden up will be 37-year-old Jason Terry. Donatas Motiejunas and Francisco Garcia are the only other reserves who had a role in the NBA last season.
Trevor Ariza could be due for a regression after an impressive contract year—he shot 41 percent from three-point range after shooting better than 33.4 percent from deep in just one season before that—and is a downgrade from Parsons at small forward. The subtractions of Lin and Asik made Houston more shallow at two of the most important positions.
Harden and Howard are still a dynamic duo, but around them, Kevin McHale may struggle to find suitable role players.
Is there any playoff hope?
As recently as early July, the Indiana Pacers were one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Now, with Lance Stephenson defecting to Charlotte and Paul George suffering a terrible leg injury while playing for Team USA, the team's short-term future is questionable at best.
With Stephenson out of the picture, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles—two role players—have been added to take over the minutes at shooting guard. At George's spot, Solomon Hill, Damjan Rudez and Chris Copeland make up the small forward depth.
David West and Roy Hibbert are still in place, while Luis Scola is coming off an impressive FIBA run and can be counted on for offense with the second team. But where the Pacers plan on getting the bulk of their scoring from on a nightly basis remains a mystery.
Without George, Indiana will have an incredibly tough time competing for a playoff seed. But he has left the door open for a late-season return should the team manage to remain competitive while he's away, per Pacers.com:
It's very possible that I can play (this season) I've talked to all the guys and said, 'Man, you guys have to get in the playoffs. That's the best chance I've got of coming back and playing this year.' I've already got it in mind that I could miss this whole year. I'm come to peace with that, but I'd love to be able to come back and play again.
It would be an endearing tale, but next summer, with West and Hibbert coming off the books, the team could have near-max cap space, if it wishes to go that route. A prime draft pick wouldn't hurt matters, either. Focusing on the future, instead of meddling toward the back end of the lottery, could be the smart play for the Pacers regardless of George's late-season status.
Los Angeles Clippers
How important are the new additions?
Despite being one of the West's stronger units last season, the Los Angeles Clippers lacked depth behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan at the bigger positions. Doc Rivers did his best to patch up those holes during the season by adding Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis, but neither was able to provide a huge impact.
The Clips nabbed Spencer Hawes and Ekpe Udoh to shore up the big-man rotation, and Davis re-upped on a minimum deal. The Hawes move initiated a hard salary cap for this season, which means there won't be any significant roster additions until next summer at the earliest.
Hawes was a significant pickup. As a 7-footer who shot 42 percent from three last season while taking four per game, he adds a trait to Los Angeles' offense that wasn't there before. He contributed eight rebounds per game over 31 minutes for the Cavs and 76ers, so while he's not dominating the boards, he's no slouch.
But offense has never been the question for the Clippers. After finishing first in efficiency last season, defense down low has been the primary concern. L.A. was roughly 15 points worse per 100 possessions with Big Baby on the floor last season. Udoh has mainly been a positive contributor over his career, though he's never played a significant role on a winning team. Over the course of Hawes' career, opponents have shot three points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Jordan and Griffin led the team with more than 2,800 minutes played in 2013-14. The next closest Clipper was Chris Paul with 2,171. Both players are young, but for a team that expects to compete well into May, it's best to find rest whenever it's available. Even with Hawes and Davis, it will still be something to keep an eye on if they can't hold up their end of the bargain defensively.
Los Angeles Lakers
Can Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant hold up?
The All-Star backcourt that was assembled two years ago never truly competed for anything together. Now, with a 40-year-old Steve Nash and a 36-year-old Kobe Bryant, the Lakers are competing simply to stay relevant, as neither player appeared in more than 15 games last season.
The team has Jeremy Lin as a reliable fallback if Steve Nash fails to recover from his array of ailments that held him out for more than 60 games last season. But Nick Young, who manned the shooting guard spot mostly in Bryant's absence a year ago, will miss six to eight weeks after tearing a ligament in his thumb shortly after camp opened, according to Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles.
This season's expectations are hardly higher than last season's poor finish, but without Bryant and Nash, L.A. is almost sure to be the same laughingstock it was during 2013-14. With Nash's deal coming off the books next summer and a potentially high draft pick next June, this could be another painful building block toward the team's future—one beyond Kobe's retirement.
Is there enough offense?
The Memphis Grizzlies still have their trademark gritty core intact for 2014-15, featuring Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. But after finishing no better than 16th in offensive efficiency over the last four seasons, it's reasonable to wonder if this current makeup can escape the rugged Western Conference.
The team signed free agent Vince Carter, who, despite his mileage, has recreated himself into a viable option off the bench. He averaged 13 points per night for the Mavericks over the last two years on 40 percent shooting from three-point range, which will come in handy with the Grizzlies, who finished 19th in three-point shooting last season. But Carter could simply be a replacement for Mike Miller, who contributed long-range shooting last season but fled to Cleveland to play with LeBron James.
Randolph and Conley will still supply the team with most of its heavy lifting on offense, with Gasol contributing what he can from inside. Aside from these players mentioned, it's difficult to find a real source of offense anywhere else on the roster.
Beno Udrih has a dependable three-point shot but is turnover-prone and not the type of player you want to depend on for offense. Courtney Lee is solid for what he is—a decent two-way role player—and Jordan Adams can possibly make an impact as a rookie. If this were 2007, Tayshaun Prince would be useful, but it's not, and he's not.
The addition of Carter showed that the team had real concerns about the offense, but it's still a weakness. Whether the team can muster up enough points on a nightly basis to advance as far as Lionel Hollins took them is yet to be seen, though Dave Joerger put on a decent coaching display in the second half of his rookie campaign.
What exactly will Chris Bosh's new role be?
Without LeBron James in the mix for the Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are now Options 1A and 1B for the Heat—roles they were familiar with long before the Big Three first assembled in 2010. But although they're returning to the level of prominence they'd previously grown accustomed to, both are far different players than they were before LeBron rallied the troops in South Beach.
In many ways, Wade is still a similar force, but time has taken its toll on the 32-year-old's meniscus-less left knee. When he's at full strength, No. 3 is still one of the finest all-around weapons in the game. But that isn't all too often nowadays.
As it pertains to Bosh, he's a much more complete talent than he was as Toronto Raptors' lead man pre-2010—which is saying something, because that Bosh averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds over his last five years there.
After four years with Miami, Bosh has evolved into one of the league's most reliable shooters from 18 feet out. He's grown defensively—Miami's opponents scored 5.6 points per 100 possessions less last season with Bosh on the floor—and has more playoff experience in four years with the Heat than he had over his seven seasons in Toronto.
But what Bosh can bring in his new role, which wasn't necessary with LeBron in the lineup, is his dominance on the block that earned him All-Star status with the Raptors. He spoke about the difference of his new role with Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel (h/t Pro Basketball Talk) on Sept. 23:
I had to play a role. I had to play the role for the championships. I feel that I’m back to doing what comes naturally for me, which is being back in the post, being more aggressive. I’m really excited to show the city of Miami what I have. ...
They didn’t need me to do that [play in the post]. (Wade) and LeBron were our post guys. I kind of really used to (sic) those tools that I gained and put it all together.
If Bosh can be as effective in the low post as he was in Toronto, in conjunction with the new skills he's put together in Miami, he has a chance at becoming one of the most complete big men in the game.
How will Jason Kidd play his young talents?
It may not be several years until the plan is fulfilled, but the Milwaukee Bucks are putting together a solid core of versatile young players to build toward a bright future.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is already one of the more versatile players in the league. With the build and skill set of a wing player and the lankiness of a stretch big at 6'11", the Greek Freak is capable of guarding every position on the floor. According to Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com (h/t SB Nation's Eric Buenning), new head coach Jason Kidd has mentioned running him out as the league's tallest point guard ever, and thus far in camp, he's kept his word.
Antetokounmpo shared his thoughts on the position move with Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders:
I’m not going to say I was shocked by it. It’s something that I feel comfortable with and I’ll play wherever Coach wants me to play, especially when it’s Coach Kidd who thinks that I can play point guard. That makes me feel like, ‘I can play it. I can play point guard.’ I’m going to try my best and just listen to Coach. I’ll do whatever Coach says to do and I’ll get more comfortable.
Kidd and Gary Payton have been working with Antetokounmpo throughout camp so far, honing his skills at the point.
Jabari Parker is another intriguing piece, thanks to his versatility. At 6'8", 240 pounds, the second overall pick has prototypical size at the 3. His quickness makes him a candidate to beat defenders in the backcourt, and his 7-foot wingspan and a bit more size—which could be added in the coming years—could translate to success at power forward.
Parker was frequently compared to Carmelo Anthony during his college career, and those comparisons aren't uncalled for, writes SI.com's Peter Bukowski:
Parker has embraced comparisons to Carmelo Anthony, seen as a pejorative in some ways, and the numbers bear out a striking resemblance.
Per 40 minutes, Parker averages 25.8 points per game, 11.4 rebounds, making 51.5 percent of his two-point buckets and 36.7 percent of his threes.
Per 40 minutes as a freshman at Syracuse, Carmelo averaged 24.4 points per game, 11 rebounds, making 49.6 percent of his twos, and 33.7 percent of his threes.
A thinner player in 2003 than he is now, the team occasionally ran 'Melo in the backcourt, but he was predominantly a small forward over his career with the Nuggets. As the league has evolved and Anthony's body has matured, he's thrived at power forward, where he's a matchup nightmare for traditional 4's—a trajectory that Parker could adopt as well.
Brandon Knight, Nate Wolters and Kendall Marshall are all trying to factor into the point guard rotation also, while O.J. Mayo will get minutes in the backcourt as well. With this much raw, versatile talent, Milwaukee may be an entertaining unit in the not-too-distant future. Figuring out what the Bucks are working with in camp is the first step.
How will the veterans and young guys jell?
A year removed from being a playoff contender with Kevin Love on the roster, the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in an awkward in-between phase of their rebuild. There are still several legitimate, veteran players scattered throughout the depth chart, but the nucleus of the unit moving forward is very clearly the young, promising group that was put together this summer.
With veteran coach Flip Saunders at the helm, it'll be interesting to see the dynamic between the Wolves' younger players and the more established group.
At small forward, Andrew Wiggins and Corey Brewer will share time, but Saunders isn't ready to commit to this year's first overall pick as the starter just yet. Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press tweeted, "Asked of #Twolves starters, Flip Saunders told @105theticket youngsters to be interspersed w/ vets. Noncommittal on Andrew Wiggins starting."
Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett, Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng are all very attractive pieces to build with. But in Brewer, Mo Williams, Kevin Martin, Thaddeus Young and Nikola Pekovic, Saunders has more experienced players he may instinctively turn to in the midst of competition, possibly stunting the early development of his younger guys.
For the sake of the future, it'll be important for the coach to give his young players a chance to grow. For the veterans, losing may become frustrating very quickly. It'll be important for any negative energy not to become toxic within the locker room, with so many impressionable young personalities on the team.
New Orleans Pelicans
Is everyone back to full strength?
In Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans, the New Orleans Pelicans have a clunky yet intriguing mix of players to stack up 1 through 3. Holiday is a natural point with the ability to score, while Gordon is a shooting guard stuck in a point man's body. Evans has experience at both guard positions but is getting run at the 3 with the Pels.
It's a crazy enough idea to maybe work under the right circumstances, but given all of last year's injuries, it never got off the ground floor. All three players are recovering from surgeries and attempting to return at full strength by the end of training camp.
Both Holiday and Gordon got the Saturday start in New Orleans' preseason opener, and both played 10 minutes. Evans suffered a hamstring injury while playing pickup ball and may miss as much as five weeks.
Ryan Anderson, the fourth piece of the Pelicans' not-named-Anthony-Davis puzzle, is returning from neck surgery. Before he went down last season, he was enjoying a breakout campaign, averaging a career-high 19.8 points on 41 percent shooting from three-point range. If he can return to anything resembling his 2013-14 form, New Orleans should have no problem spacing things out for Davis to work inside.
There's no question that it's only a matter of time before Davis establishes himself as one of the best players in the NBA, and it could happen as early as this season. Surrounding him, if everyone's healthy, the Pelicans have a ton of talent that simply needs more time together on the floor.
New York Knicks
How long will it take to figure out the triangle?
In a season with admittedly low expectations, the New York Knicks still figure to be in the hunt for one of the East's final playoff spots. They're in a strange predicament, with much of the roster already overhauled by Phil Jackson but with a few holdovers from the prior regime still lingering around.
Head coach Derek Fisher is implementing his version of the triangle offense, and according to Iman Shumpert, it seems as if he's been meant to do this all along, via the New York Post's Marc Berman:
I love it. He sort of seems like he did it before. I didn’t think he’d be that good [as a coach] off the bat. He speaks as if he’s been coaching for years. You forget he played, at times. Until he goes out here, does an example and does it way better than most coaches do it. ... He’s professional through and through, on and off the court.
Fisher's teaching skills will be paramount during camp as he attempts to instill the triangle to a cast of players who have never learned it before. He had the summer league players running triangle sets last July, and considering they only had a matter of days to learn, they performed fairly well. The big league team will be searching for similar results.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Who's playing shooting guard?
With Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha gone, the Oklahoma City Thunder's starting backcourt options are wearing thin this season.
Sam Presti managed to snag Anthony Morrow on a three-year, $10 million deal, but the 28-year-old veteran has averaged less than 16 minutes per game over the past two seasons and never appeared in a postseason game. However, he does add three-point shooting to a team that finished around league average last season at 36 percent from deep.
Royce Young of Daily Thunder spoke with Morrow shortly after he put ink to paper:
Whatever the staff, whatever the team needs me to do. I’m going on my seventh year. I’ve started, I’ve come off the bench. It really doesn’t matter to me at all. It’s just a situation where I want to help the team. In free agency, I saw a need and a void I could fill in terms of shooting the ball and at the same time, it’s two superstars, actually, in my opinion three superstars with Serge, a guy that can draw a lot of attention and get in the paint and I can stand out there and make it easier on him as well. Whatever coach needs me to do, whatever my role is, I’m ready to embrace it. It doesn’t matter.
Jeremy Lamb will also be competing for the starting job. He'll be entering his third campaign with the Thunder and still hasn't made a dramatic impact—though Brooks hasn't given him much of an extended look. The coach was inconsistent with Lamb's minutes last season, and the 21-year-old struggled to get into much of a rhythm. During the playoffs, his minutes dipped to less than nine per game, and he did not play by coach's decision in eight of the team's 19 postseason contests.
Andre Roberson is another option at the position, but as a rookie he appeared in just nine playoff minutes under Brooks. Knowing the coach's tendency to steer away from raw youth in the rotation, it'll be tough for Roberson to win the job.
Lamb will likely be motivated to make an impact after failing to do so over his first two NBA years, and he has the potential to be a more complete option than Morrow. Camp will decide who comes away with the starting gig.
Can the team establish an identity?
The Orlando Magic have put together a lot of youth since parting with Dwight Howard in 2012. Still, those various pieces are just that—pieces—without any clear direction or identity to determine what kind of team the Magic project to be.
After a full rookie season of playing Victor Oladipo at the point guard position—and he played fairly well, posting 14 points, four rebounds and four assists per game—he'll bump back up to his more natural 2 spot. Elfrid Payton was drafted to take over the point guard duties and is a promising all-around threat. During the summer league, he put his quickness on display and fell one assist and two rebounds shy of a triple-double.
At the forward positions, Tobias Harris, Moe Harkless, Aaron Gordon and Andrew Nicholson are all great pieces to build with, but at least at this point, those players all seem to have way too similar skill sets to coexist and develop on the same roster. None of the four has shown an ability to consistently knock down jumpers from outside.
Harris and Harkless thrive on cuts and slashes to the tin, while Nicholson is a methodical big man who's trying to work a long two-point shot into his arsenal. Gordon is basically limited to shots at the rim.
Even Oladipo and Payton, in the backcourt, struggle with the three-ball. The team added Evan Fournier and Channing Frye to help infuse some shooting into the lineup, but with most of its core being such poor perimeter scorers, Orlando could be facing an identity crisis if it doesn't put something together pretty soon.
How many players will stick around?
We know those three up there are part of the Philadelphia 76ers' future. And we know Dario Saric will factor in after 2016. But can anybody else on this year's team stick around for the long term?
Hollis Thompson shot 40 percent from three-point range and averaged 6.0 points and 3.2 rebounds over 22.6 minutes last season as an undrafted rookie. Tony Wroten doesn't have a particularly hefty skill set for a guard but brings pressure on defense and was the first player ever to log a triple-double in his first NBA start, which is cool.
Pierre Jackson is likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles in the summer league, but he's impressed in Orlando summer play and in the D-League—he was recently waived by Philly but will almost definitely re-sign next season when healthy. K.J. McDaniels possesses athleticism that can translate to NBA success, and the same goes for Jerami Grant.
And the Sixers have Keith Bogans, who—yeah, Bogans isn't sticking around anywhere.
Give Philly until the end of the decade, and it may have something pretty exciting for us. The Sixers might even have some new pieces to add with those prized second-round picks.
How will the backcourt minutes shake out?
What was originally presumed to be a one-year overlap may turn out to be the long-term plan in Phoenix. Isaiah Thomas was brought in from the Sacramento Kings last July, back when Eric Bledsoe's status with the team was up in the air. Now, with Bledsoe signing a five-year extension last month, that pair is locked into the next few seasons with the Suns. With Phoenix bringing in Goran Dragic's brother, Zoran, for this season, it's unlikely he decides to leave after this season, either.
The only issue is: How are all three point guards going to be satisfied?
Thomas is fresh off a 20-point, six-assist, three-rebound per-game season with the Kings, while Bledsoe and Dragic made up one of the most dynamic backcourt combos in the NBA with the Suns. The two combined for 38 points and more than 11 assists per game in 2013-14 during Phoenix's stunningly successful 2013-14 campaign.
In his introductory press conference, Thomas suggested he can fill whatever role the team needs, even returning to a bench role, per ESPN.com:
I value myself as a starter, but when it comes down to winning, I'll do anything it takes to win. I want to be on a winning team. ... At the end of the day, we're going to play with each other, no matter who starts and who comes off the bench. It's about winning. The individual success will come.
Last year's Suns won 48 games and fell just shy of a playoff spot in the brutal Western Conference. Dragic and Bledsoe led the team in minutes per game, but with Thomas around this season, that could be shaken up.
Thomas seems open to contributing as a sixth man, but in reality, the three potent guards will likely contribute similarly all year long, regardless of who starts. It may not be easy for second-year coach Jeff Hornacek to handle, but 29 other NBA teams would be more than happy to have this issue on their hands.
Portland Trail Blazers
Is the bench finally strong enough?
Even while being one of the league's pleasant surprises last season and marching all the way to a playoff bout with the San Antonio Spurs, the Portland Trail Blazers' lack of depth was still an issue. They escaped mostly unscathed thanks to tremendous health—four players were able to start all 82 games last year—but expecting that type of miracle every year just isn't a good idea.
This offseason, they worked to improve the bench for the second consecutive season. They added Steve Blake to bolster the backcourt and Chris Kaman to provide Robin Lopez with a bona fide understudy. Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson should also contribute to the second team, while Will Barton, Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum are still developing in camp and waiting for their turn.
Kaman will be joining his fifth team in as many years after averaging 10.4 points and 5.9 rebounds over 19 minutes for the Lakers last season. Blake put up 6.9 points and 5.6 assists on 37.6 percent shooting from three-point range with the Lakers and Warriors. Both players bring more than a decade each of experience to a younger Blazers nucleus.
According to The Oregonian's Sean Meagher, the two vets have already had a positive effect on camp:
'Anytime you can bring knowledge to a team it's beneficial and it ultimately makes you better,' guard Wesley Matthews said of Blake and Kaman. 'Knowledge with character guys, that's even more of a bonus.' ...
Head coach Terry Stotts says the veterans bring different-yet-valuable intangibles to Portland's tight-knit roster.
'Steve is a consummate professional,' Stotts said of Blake. 'He's one of the hardest playing guys that I've been around and leads by example. He's very competitive.'
In Kaman, Stotts noted the value the veteran big man offers to Portland's younger centers, particularly in using size and spacing on the floor.
'What he offers Joel (Freeland) and Meyers (Leonard) is some mentorship, as well as veteran know-how.'
The two additions give Portland legitimate options off the bench, which is a change from seasons past. More importantly, they give the team veteran minds to turn to, which, if the Blazers manage to trek back deep into the playoffs again, will help them be even more prepared.
Is there enough talent around Cousins and Gay?
The Kings have a budding star on their hands in DeMarcus Cousins, and after being acquired by Sacramento, Rudy Gay seemed to evolve into an uncharacteristically sound scorer. Assuming both players return to the hardwood in 2014-15 the same way they left it in April, the team has a fairly devastating duo to run out every night.
The issue is the supporting cast. With Isaiah Thomas gone, Darren Collison—whose career line comes out to 11.9 points, 4.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds over 28.7 minutes—is slated to be the starter at point, playing for his fourth team in as many seasons. Unproven but promising youngsters—of similar skill sets—Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas make up the depth at shooting guard, while Omri Casspi, Reggie Evans, Carl Landry and Derrick Williams round out the frontcourt depth.
After going 28-54 in each of the last two seasons—the franchise's highest win totals since 2007-08—the organization's new regime is through with being conservative.
"We're not patient anymore. We want to win more," general manager Pete D'Alessandro said, according to The Associated Press (via Fox News).
Management is making moves, but with a roster like this, it may be a few more seasons until Mike Malone's Kings are competing again. They have cornerstones, for this season at least, in Gay and Cousins. Everything else, as of now, is a question mark.
San Antonio Spurs
Can Kawhi Leonard handle a bigger role full-time?
After the last two postseasons, it's almost impossible for the San Antonio Spurs to hold Kawhi Leonard back any longer. Over his career, he's averaging 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from deep. During the postseason, those averages are 12.6 points and 7.4 boards while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.
All this while Gregg Popovich rarely, if ever, calls a play for the 23-year-old. But is it finally time for Pop to make Leonard one of the team's focal points?
Once Tim Duncan finally walks away from the game, Leonard's role as San Antonio's glue guy will certainly be due for an upgrade. But Duncan still has a year left on his contract, as does Manu Ginobili. The full-time shift of power likely isn't due for another year at least. But it's almost surely time for Leonard to take control of games more often in the regular season.
Bleacher Report's David Kenyon explored the possibility of the current Big Three beginning to pass the torch this season:
San Antonio's team-oriented scheme is flat-out fun to watch, but its longevity is clearly an issue. The retirements of both Duncan and Ginobili feel much closer after the Spurs earned another ring, and Popovich's replacement cannot perfectly replicate what the team is currently doing.
Leonard's reserved attitude causes doubts that he'll be able to instinctively assume the role of a leading playmaker, so the Spurs need to see exactly that this season. The elderly version of the Big Three remains, and it's a perfect opportunity to hand a budding star more responsibilities.
It's unknown yet if Leonard will blossom into the league's next superstar, especially because he's never been asked to be that player. But will this be the season we see more of Leonard implemented into Popovich's offense?
Can last year's roster duplicate its success?
After taking home the East's third seed last season, many of the Toronto Raptors' key players were due for new contracts. For the most part, they all returned—including Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson.
After trading Rudy Gay in December, Toronto surged to the top of the Atlantic Division, primarily due to career seasons from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Lowry's 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 38 percent shooting from three-point range were huge, as were DeRozan's team-high 22.7 points per game.
Management added Lou Williams from the Atlanta Hawks and picked up an unknown through the draft in Bruno Caboclo. But the rest of the depth chart looks nearly identical to last year's Atlantic Division champions.
We'll need to see that Lowry's performance wasn't the contract-year boost players often display. DeRozan's improved performance may have been a direct result of increased volume. These are both variables that will only be solved over time.
Neither the Brooklyn Nets nor New York Knicks managed to drastically improve, and the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are still in the midst of rebuilds. The Raps may not even need to be as successful as they were during last year's second half to take home a second consecutive division crown.
If they do manage to improve, it'll be interesting to see how close they can get in the standings to expected powerhouses Chicago and Cleveland—or if they can fall below new-look squads like Miami or Charlotte.
What will the backcourt rotation look like?
New Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder has plenty of options to turn to when constructing the team's backcourt rotation. Newly drafted Dante Exum will surely factor in somehow, as will last year's first-round pick Trey Burke. But the inclusion of Alec Burks shouldn't be overlooked through all this.
Burks averaged 14 points last season on 45 percent shooting while grabbing three boards, putting up three assists and coming away with a steal over 28 minutes per game. At 6'6", he could play minutes at the 3, but he's a more natural fit in the backcourt at this stage in his career.
Burke struggled some in his rookie year. He made only 33 percent of his shots from long range, and his overall field-goal percentage was down at 38 percent.
Exum brings lanky athleticism to the team. After drafting him fifth this summer, Utah will do its best to include him whenever possible. He hasn't shown an ability to hit a jumper with regularity, though he's still developing at only 19. And in theory, Burke's shooting range that he displayed with Michigan should help counteract Exum's weaknesses from deep.
Toure' Murry also should factor in after signing a two-year, partially guaranteed deal this summer. As a rookie with the Knicks, Murry displayed good size and athleticism at both guard positions and brings intensity on defense, though he's still raw after Mike Woodson neglected him through most of the season.
There's plenty of youth, and in what seems to be a building year for Utah, Snyder should have the opportunity to let his players earn roles for the future.
Can Randy Wittman get consistent results?
Going into last season, Randy Wittman's coaching future essentially depended on the Wizards' success. He'd never made a postseason in his seven pro seasons as head coach, and the organization was going all-in on building a playoff team after trading a first-round pick for Marcin Gortat.
To his credit, Wittman got Washington to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
But even though the Wizards impressed and landed a middle seed in a weak Eastern Conference—even winning a playoff series against Tom Thibodeau's Bulls—there seems to be the underlying sentiment that Wittman is just missing something and maybe holding back this talented roster.
CBS Sports' Matt Moore further explored the idea:
Night by night, the Wizards could be a smart, savvy team that exploited team's weaknesses and made the right plays, which made you think 'You know, maybe Wittman really just clicks with this team.'
And then some nights, they would look like they just rolled in off the lobotomy table. They put together enough to make a run, and legitimately played great vs. Chicago.
You just always get the feeling that this roster could do more, do better, with another coach at the helm.
Coming away with long Drew Gooden two-pointers out of timeouts in the playoffs is one example. Sporadic, flat-out disinterested performances from the team were another. But there were also moments—many of them, even—that the team seemed to rally behind Wittman.
But with management granting the coach a five-year extension this past summer, it's most likely all moot. Wittman will be the coach for at least another season or two, and we'll need to see if he can get this unit firing consistently.