Lingering Questions for NBA's Biggest 2016-17 Contenders

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 7, 2016

Lingering Questions for NBA's Biggest 2016-17 Contenders

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    What you've heard is true: Not even the NBA's top title contenders are perfect.

    No matter how good a team looks on paperor on the courtthere is always at least one potential hurdle or flaw that can make its pursuit of the Larry O'Brien Trophy uncomfortably daunting. 

    Put in layman's terms: We're about to nitpick.

    Since the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors exist to make life impossible on their peers, only the most serious contenders will be put under the microscope. Teams qualify for consideration if you can envision a feasible scenario in which they make it out of their respective conference. They will appear in order of increasing championship appeal, because alphabetical lists are overrated.

Honorable 'Are We Serious Enough Contenders?' Mentions

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Atlanta Hawks: Can Dennis Schroder make the leap?

    The Atlanta Hawks are once again deploying an elite defense, and the offense has been good enough to support the league's best net rating. But they are barely a net positive with newly crowned starting point guard Dennis Schroder on the floor.

    When he sits, in fact, the offense improves by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. That'll need to change for the Hawks to be more than blips on the championship radar.

        

    Chicago Bulls: Are they this good on offense?

    Despite starting four non-shooters in Taj Gibson, Robin Lopez, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, the Chicago Bulls have the league's third-best offense and rank third in three-point accuracy.

    Here's the rub: Isaiah Canaan, Doug McDermott, Jimmy Butler and Wade are draining threes at career clips, and Chicago's offense has been statistically better with most of the starters on the bench. There's no way the Bulls enter the real title conversation with a lackluster defense when their three best players—Butler, Rondo and Wade—are offensive washes.

        

    Houston Rockets: Will they improve defensively?

    "It just shows you how much they're committed to winning," Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said of the team's defense three games into the season, per ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins. "And they are and we'll fix the offense and if we keep the defense right there, then we have a chance to be really good."

    So much for that. Only the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics are allowing more points per 100 possessions than Houston. The starting lineup of Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and James Harden has been surprisingly stingy, but most subsequent lineups are hemorrhaging points. 

    With little to no depth coming off the bench, the Rockets have to hope Patrick Beverley's return triggers some level of defensive transformation.

        

    Oklahoma City Thunder: Are they actually good enough to be here?

    Crass, I know. The Oklahoma City Thunder join the Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets and Cavaliers as the only teams with no more than one loss. It would appear they belong in the title conversation.

    But the Thunder's schedule hasn't been hard. Yes, they played the Warriors, but they lost. And they caught the Clippers on one of their worst nights.  Dearth of spacing is already creating cracks in the offense, and it's unclear whether OKC can maintain a top-five defense all season.

    Circle back to the Thunder in January. If they're still among the best teams in the league then, it'll be time to take them seriously.

        

    Utah Jazz: Will they stay healthy enough?

    Alec Burks is out indefinitely, Boris Diaw is dealing with a leg injury, Derrick Favors isn't yet weeks removed from his stay on the shelf, and Gordon Hayward only just returned after suffering a broken finger.

    The Utah Jazz are deep, but damn. 

    Their defense is unexpectedly hovering outside the top 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions, and the second-stringers aren't generating consistent offense. 

    Like last season, this isn't a question of ability. The Jazz are a playoff team at full strength. But will they be healthy enough to find their two-way groove? And will they then be good enough to contend with the NBA's foremost championship-chasers?

Boston Celtics: Is the 3-Point Shooting for Real?

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    It's only fair to give the Boston Celtics the benefit of the doubt on defense. They rank second-to-last in points allowed per 100 possessions, but rookie Jaylen Brown is still learning the ropes, while Jae Crowder, Al Horford and Marcus Smart have yet to be healthy at the same time—a critical set of caveats so early into the post-Evan Turner era.

    Three-point shooting is a more pressing matter, not because the Celtics are struggling, but because they're thriving.

    Boston is sixth in deep-ball accuracy (38.3 percent), seventh in outside volume (29.2 attempts per game) and first in catch-and-shoot effective field-goal percentage (60.8). Those are far cries from last year's 28th (33.5), 11th (26.1 attempts) and 29th (48.1) rankings, respectively.

    Swapping out Turner for anyone qualifies as a spacing upgrade, and Horford, while not shooting the three-ball well himself, creates room simply by being on the floor. But the Celtics' improvement from the outside—buoying what is now a top-two offense—is so drastic it's unsettling.

    Avery Bradley, Terry Rozier and Crowder are putting down threes with career-high efficiency. Smart is flirting with his own personal-best mark amid career-high volume. Ditto for Amir Johnson. Brown, who was portrayed as a non-shooter entering the league, had torched twine on more than 40 percent of his three-point attempts prior to Sunday's 0-of-3 outing from downtown against the Denver Nuggets.

    Is this sustainable? When Jonas Jerebko, Isaiah Thomas and Horford are underperforming from beyond the arc? And is the entire offense, as a result, equipped to endure Thomas' stays on the bench with ease, like it's doing now?

    Answer these questions in the affirmative, and the Celtics, assuming their defense regains its forecasted swag, will be formative enough for the Eastern Conference overlords, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to take notice.

Los Angeles Clippers: Are They Deep Enough?

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Although the Los Angeles Clippers' slow start on offense is worth an asterisk, we're going to assume a team with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul figures out how to score with greater efficiency. Bold, I know.

    That leaves us to tackle the Big Three-old question: Are the Clippers deep enough to make it past the conference semifinals and contend for a title?

    Nothing is wrong inside the starting lineup. Trotting out Luc Mbah a Moute as the first-string small forward isn't ideal, but it barely matters who's at the 3 when they're flanked by DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, Griffin and Paul.

    There isn't as much certainty beyond that opening combination—though not for the Clippers' lack of trying.

    Head coach and president Doc Rivers has recognizable names headlining the second unit. Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers and Marreese Speights are all actual NBA players. Paul Pierce counts as half of an NBA player whenever he's healthy, too.

    And still the Clippers' bench mob sits in the middle, lacking a certain pop, just like most of its previous iterations, according to HoopsStats.com: 

    Clippers BenchOff. RankDef. Rank
    2011-122623
    2012-1321
    2013-142725
    2014-152929
    2015-161313
    2016-171317

    Great teams don't always enjoy exceptional depth, having funneled so much money into their starting fives. But in the Clippers' case, when you're trying to get away with sitting Griffin and Paul together for 13 minutes per game, according to NBA Wowy, you damn well better have a bench that can carry you.

Toronto Raptors: Is the Power Forward Position Good Enough?

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Kudos to the Toronto Raptors. Their offense is contending for top-five placement, and they rank seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions. It almost makes you forget about their complete lack of punch at the power forward position.

    Almost.

    Toronto has been dealing with a dearth of talent there for some time. Its power forward rotation is thus far 28th in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency, according to HoopsStats.com.

    DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson and rookie Pascal Siakam could eventually allow the Raptors to make do with their current personnel, but it doesn't look good. Carroll spends most of his time chasing around wings and still seems dinged up; Patterson isn't valuable when shooting 15 percent from three; and Siakam, in addition to having no three-point range, looks overmatched on defense.

    Jared Sullinger's eventual return from left foot surgery will help, but Toronto needs him to beef up a center corps that's bending whenever Jonas Valanciunas takes a seat. And there is no one already on the roster who will remedy what now looks like incurably bad pick-and-roll protection.

    DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will keep the Raptors in 55-win territory no matter what happens at power forward, and the absence of defensive depth up front on paper hasn't translated into an on-court implosion. But the defense has yet to be tested by more than one above-average opponent (Cleveland).

    So while the Raptors offense is armed enough to mask a shallow and, as of now, ineffective power forward rotation, the defense won't hold up much longer. Toronto must turn to the trade market—for much more than Nerlens Noel, mind you—to genuinely challenge Cleveland.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Can They Beat the Warriors?

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    JAY LAPRETE/Getty Images

    LeBron James and friends continue to bask in last season's NBA Finals victory—Halloween-themed troll job and all. And rightfully so. No team ever erased a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals before, and the Warriors talked and smirked a big game. Kudos to the Cavaliers.

    The fact remains, though, that they fell into that 3-1 hole in the first place. Had Draymond Green never punched James in the LeBrons, the Warriors would probably be working off a second consecutive title. All of the jokes in the world don't make that any less true. Golden State could have changed nothing about its roster, win or lose, and Cleveland would have its hands full, still a reigning-champion underdog.

    Only, the Warriors didn't stand pat. They upped the ante, adding another-MVP Kevin Durant, thus tipping the competitive landscape entirely in their favor. The Cavaliers will experience this reinvented balance of power firsthand when they meet Golden State for the first time this season on Dec. 25.

    James may be able to play the game of his life on cue, but can Game 7 Kyrie Irving show up each time? Will Kevin Love make a difference in another best-of-seven set with Golden State? Does the Cavaliers defense stand a chance of grinding the Warriors' explosive firepower to a relative halt?

    On paper, Durant starkly tips the scales in this matchup. The Warriors' latest "Death Squad" has the spacing and off-the-bounce quickness to force both Tristan Thompson and Love, two of Cleveland's best players, out of the game.

    What do the Cavaliers do then? Leave one of them at center anyway? Stick James at the 5? Hope Warriors head coach Steve Kerr becomes inexplicably infatuated with playing Anderson Varejao once again?

    Even after upsetting Golden State to earn its first-ever title, Cleveland's championship ceiling hinges on the ability to do it again.

San Antonio Spurs: Is the Backcourt Up to Snuff?

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    Chris Covatta/Getty Images

    Once upon a time, the San Antonio Spurs' backcourt was a nightly weapon—an advantage they held over almost all of their opponents.

    Times have changed.

    San Antonio's backcourt ranks in the bottom seven of offensive and defensive value, according to HoopsStats.com. It's still early, and the Spurs, like usual, will contend for top-five status overall on both ends of the floor. But this figures to be a season-long obstacle.

    Tony Parker, 34, has been gradually losing a step every year and is now sidelined with a sore right knee. Manu Ginobili, 39, remains fun to watch but has plummeted in terms of efficiency. Patty Mills is directing the offense more, a role for which he's never been ideally suited.

    Jonathon Simmons is athletic and diligent but is in a shooting slump and, most notably, has played fewer than 70 games during his NBA career. Danny Green's return from a left quad injury should help a great deal on defense, but the Spurs will still have a few lineup quandaries on their plate.

    Mills and Parker cannot play together for all of the defensive reasons. Slotting either one next to Ginobili poses similar problems. The Spurs, at this point, are more content using Kyle Anderson and Kawhi Leonard alongside two bigs with one of the aforementioned three running point—and that's far from foolproof.

    Parker is a net minus when paired with any of the other four regular starters, and the offense won't hum the way it's supposed to forever when San Antonio is consciously forced to bench some of its best playmakers.

    Chances are the Spurs will figure this out. Leonard has point-forward vision, it will be easier to cover for lapses at the 1 with Green re-entering the fold, and head coach Gregg Popovich is already making due. Still, there's no mistaking San Antonio's backcourt for an undeniable strength anymore.

Golden State Warriors: Will the Defense Return to Form?

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Golden State dropped off a hair defensively last season, slipping out of the top spot in 2014-15 for points allowed per 100 possessions. Concessions must be made when running the five-out lineups the Warriors do, so part of this dip was a conscious decision, and it wasn't a steep fall by any means.

    The Durant era is seeing them slide farther still—uncomfortably so. Though the reflexive response is to lament the departure of Andrew Bogut, his absence isn't the sole problem. The Warriors aren't impenetrable at the rim, but they are, by far, suffering more in other areas:

    WarriorsDef. Rtg.RankOpp. 3P%Rank DREB%Rank
    2014-1598.2133.7574.518
    2015-16100.9T-433.2276.0T-15
    2016-17104.5T-2234.51872.029

    Zach Lowe of ESPN.com expanded upon Golden State's fluctuating effort:

    Their centers just aren't good enough, or big enough, for the perimeter players to half-ass rebounding. It's easy to say they'll just play harder in the postseason; Durant played the best defense of his life in that seven-game epic against Golden State just six short months ago.

    But great teams -- teams that come ready for the postseason hothouse -- form habits now. They don't take shortcuts, no matter how much talent they have.

    When partnered with a explosive offense, maintaining a near-average defense should be enough for Golden State to punch its third straight ticket to the NBA Finals. But defensive nonchalance became a recurring, albeit mostly innocuous, theme last year.

    Continuing down that road now, against a smaller margin for error, is inexcusable.

        

    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate leading into games on Nov. 7. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @danfavale.

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