10 Biggest Question Marks in the NBA Entering 2015
It's almost the New Year, which means it's time to pop a bottle of your favorite beverage and ponder the NBA's most pressing questions. At least, I think that's how this goes.
With a third of the 2014-15 campaign in the rearview mirror, we'll take stock of the league's many uncertainties and explore how things may shake out over the next few months.
From Stephen Curry's MVP odds to the Oklahoma City Thunder's place in the Western Conference and the tragic state of New York's two franchises, it's time to indulge in a little forward thinking.
As a guide, keep in mind that these questions relate strictly to the remainder of the 2014-15 season and do not take into account free agency or next year's draft to a significant degree.
Where Will the Oklahoma City Thunder Finish out West?
The Oklahoma City Thunder have clawed back into the Western Conference playoff picture in a hurry.
Although Kevin Durant has battled a sprained right ankle, Scott Brooks' club sits a mere two games out of the eighth seed. That's a fairly miraculous feat considering Durant and Russell Westbrook have appeared in nine and 17 of the Thunder's 31 games to date, respectively.
And with Durant close to a return, according to The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater, the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans need to be watching their backs.
Roaring back into the postseason conversation behind a defense that ranks fourth in efficiency, Oklahoma City is simply stifling opponents to the tune of 102.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
What's terrifying is Oklahoma City's offense ranks 22nd in efficiency (104.5) and has still managed to capture seven wins over its last 10 games.
With a healthy Durant and a staggeringly efficient Westbrook (he leads all players with a player efficiency rating of 33.4, per ESPN.com) leading the charge, Western Conference favorites should be quivering in their signature kicks.
Who Will the Cleveland Cavaliers Acquire to Protect the Rim?
The outcome of the Cleveland Cavaliers' search for a stopgap rim-protecting solution could have a significant impact on the Eastern Conference title picture.
Before Anderson Varejao suffered a season-ending Achilles injury, the Cavaliers were already an unmitigated disaster down low. They rank dead-last in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim (57.1), per NBA.com, and surrender 45.1 paint points per game (No. 24 overall), according to TeamRankings.com.
But now, with its most stable interior defender sidelined for the remainder of the season, Cleveland is left in a precarious position. In order to stay out of danger, general manager David Griffin will need to get creative at the trade deadline.
For the uninitiated, two popular names have been linked to Cleveland thus far.
The first is Memphis Grizzlies center Kosta Koufos. ESPN.com's Marc Stein explained earlier this month what it would likely take to acquire the reserve big:
Sources say that the Cavs are well aware landing a quality big man likely depends on selling on potential trade partners to take back polarizing shooting guard Dion Waiters. Cleveland rates Waiters' talent highly, but sources maintain that the Cavs have let a number of teams know they are prepared to surrender him if they can acquire a difference-making center in return.
The other is Denver Nuggets interior stalwart Timofey Mozgov. According to Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico, "The Cavs have recently taken part in talks centered on Memphis Grizzlies center/forward Kosta Koufos and Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov. Those talks have not progressed, however."
RealGM's Shams Charania also passed along word that Cleveland "inquired about Los Angeles Lakers center Robert Sacre over the summer but hasn't rekindled discussions on the 7-footer since." Without question, Sacre would represent a cheaper—albeit less effective—solution.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, an answer may need to wait until the Feb. 19 trade deadline. But if Cleveland's dire situation is any indication, perhaps Griffin will be willing to ship Dion Waiters out as a way to chase his franchise's championship aspirations.
Will the New York Knicks Shut Carmelo Anthony Down?
As the New York Daily News' Frank Isola reported earlier this month, New York Knicks volume-scorer extraordinaire Carmelo Anthony is dealing with a sore left knee that may eventually require surgery.
And while no decision on a procedure appears imminent, CBS Sports' Ken Berger offers an interesting proposition:
So here is the question you are all waiting for: With Anthony bothered by a sore left knee (and bruised ego), should the Knicks just send him to the Hospital for Special Surgery already to have it fixed—thus avoiding the ignominy of wasting one of the good seasons he has left, at age 30 in the first year of a five-year, $124 million contract?
I say, why not? What's one more lost season and a few less $12 beers if it ensures that the Knicks finally will be able to exercise the rights that come with a premium first-round pick? It's not like Anthony is taking them anywhere but the lottery anyway.
When you take it from the prideful Anthony, though, mailing in the remainder of this season doesn't appear to be on the docket.
"I’m not even looking forward to even discussing the surgery or anything like that," Anthony said, according to Isola. "I’ll explore as many other options as I can before I go under the knife and get surgery... That will always be a solution, an option, but that was the last, last option."
However, it's hard to argue with Berger's logic. The Knicks are floundering at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and are in danger of being passed in the pecking order by the lowly Philadelphia 76ers with no end to the misery in sight.
As CBS Sports' Matt Moore put it, "Hinkie has acquired three players who won’t play a game this season and still built a better team with a better coach than New York."
With the Knicks playing their way into a top-three lottery selection, it may behoove the brain trust at Madison Square Garden to make Anthony's decision for him sooner rather than later.
Can Stephen Curry Sustain His MVP Pace?
Clamor for James Harden all you want, but Stephen Curry has been the best player on the league's best team through the first two months of the 2014-15 season. As such, he deserves preferential consideration in any MVP conversation.
Averaging better than 23 points, seven assists and two steals, Curry is on pace to become the first player since Dwyane Wade in 2008-09 to meet those nightly benchmarks, according to Basketball-Reference.com. In league history, only Wade, LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Tim Hardaway, Michael Adams and Michael Jordan have accomplished the feat.
It's not just basic numbers helping Curry's case, either.
According to Basketball-Reference, Curry ranks sixth in defensive win shares, second in box-score plus/minus and second in VORP, which measures a player's value over that of a replacement-level player.
And while he's currently not meeting the necessary requirements, Curry's shooting splits of 48.8/38.2/92.0 have him within striking distance of joining the exclusive 50-40-90 club.
Harden, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol all deserve praise, but Curry's dynamism in a variety of areas has him in the driver's seat entering the New Year.
Will the Phoenix Suns Trade One of Their Point Guards?
Entering the 2014-15 season, questions abounded regarding the Phoenix Suns' ability to properly utilize Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas in a funky three-point guard experiment.
While the three lead Phoenix in scoring with more than 15 points per game apiece, the team continues to lack the frontcourt depth necessary to emerge as a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.
As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck put it, "Phoenix, point guard rich but frontcourt poor, is overdue for a roster shakeup."
Beck added the following when discussing the Suns' personnel quagmire:
Would the Suns pay three point guards a combined $35 million, more than half of the projected cap? Would they let Dragic walk away for nothing?
The answer to both questions is "probably not," which is why team executives across the league expect the Suns to trade one of the three. Some interviewed for this story said Thomas was the most likely candidate.
Although the Suns' strategy was an intriguing one in an era of dominant small-ball scoring units, Jeff Hornacek's club simply hasn't been able to overcome its lack of size. To that point, Phoenix ranks 28th in opponents' paint scoring, surrendering 46.5 points per game, according to TeamRankings.com.
It may be painful to admit a mistake after a few short months, but the Suns need to move sooner rather than later if they hope to sneak into the postseason conversation.
Will the Dallas Mavericks' Efficiency Continue to Slide?
At one point, the Dallas Mavericks were on pace to run away with the league record for offensive efficiency. However, since the team moved to acquire Rajon Rondo, Dallas' staggering numbers have regressed ever so slightly.
Yes, the Mavericks still lead the NBA in offensive rating with a mark of 112.3, according to NBA.com. But thanks to Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta (h/t Adam Fromal), it's clear the team's execution has suffered a bit with Rondo at the controls of Rick Carlisle's offense.
Per Scaletta, the Mavericks posted an efficiency rating of 116.8 prior to Rondo's arrival. Since the distributive savant has donned blue and white, though, Dallas' efficiency during that span has dipped to 106 and topped out at 109.9.
Now, an offensive rating of 106 is hardly worth sneering at. In fact, it would rank as a borderline top-10 mark through 31 games.
The concern, of course, is that Dallas' sliding offensive production combined with a defense that's surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions could set the Mavericks back a few wins. And in a Western Conference where each and every game matters toward playoff seeding, Dallas can't afford to regress any further.
Which Team Will Capture Home Court in the East?
Right now, it would be hard disagree with the Toronto Raptors being considered odds-on favorites to emerge with home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.
Following Saturday's 110-98 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto has won eight of its last 10 games and improved to 8-2 against the Western Conference this season.
Possessing an offense that's quietly close to creeping past Dallas in efficiency, the Raptors have thrived with Kyle Lowry as their lead dog. And don't forget that a significant portion of this prosperity has come sans DeMar DeRozan (groin), who's been sidelined since Nov. 29. Specifically, Toronto is 10-4 since DeRozan left the lineup.
The Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards all represent legitimate threats to Toronto's cushy throne, but with a conference-best 14-3 record at home, the Raptors and their raucous Air Canada Centre crowd should gear up for a postseason filled with Drake-themed giveaways.
Can the New Orleans Pelicans Finally Break Through?
If not now, when will the New Orleans Pelicans crack the Western Conference playoff picture?
As things stand, the Pelicans are hovering right around .500, which means they're jockeying with the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City for that coveted eighth seed.
But with the Thunder surging and New Orleans struggling on defense, it may soon be time to panic in the Big Easy.
Remember when the interior duo of Omer Asik and Anthony Davis was supposed to make New Orleans an absolute wrecking crew around the rim? Well, that preseason prognostication hasn't played out in expected fashion.
Davis may be an extraterrestrial basketball being on one of the league's top-10 offenses, but until the Pelicans remedy their defensive woes, .500 is where they'll stand.
Will the Brooklyn Nets Blow Things Up?
At this point, it's no secret the Brooklyn Nets are exploring avenues of change.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk reported earlier this month that the Nets were putting out trade feelers for Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. That was closely followed by a report from Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher stating that owner Mikhail Prokhorov was looking to shed salary in order to make Brooklyn more appealing to potential buyers.
With Williams, Johnson and Lopez on the books for approximately $43 million, $24.9 million and $16.7 million following this season, respectively, according to BasketballInsiders.com, it's no wonder Brooklyn is attempting to change course and turn an eye toward financial flexibility.
After years of irresponsible and unchecked spending, the Nets may very well learn the hard way that unloading pricey veteran deals is an arduous undertaking. If buyers do come calling in February offering salary relief, though, the Nets would be wise to listen up.
Can the Los Angeles Clippers Establish an Identity?
What are we to make of the Los Angeles Clippers?
They clearly possess elite talent, but Doc Rivers' boys have yet to hit their stride. As a result, the Clippers occupy the Western Conference's No. 6 seed after losing six of their last 10, including defeats at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors.
The defense, however, continues to occupy a league-average ranking thanks to some underwhelming rim protection. Of course, that shouldn't be horribly surprising after L.A. decided to invest in a stretch 5 like Spencer Hawes in lieu of targeting a legitimate reserve rim-protector who could provide interior stability behind DeAndre Jordan.
And with the Clippers' second unit sitting just outside the league's bottom 10 in terms of nightly scoring output, per HoopsStats.com, it's going to be tough for this depth-starved club to enter the title conversation.