The Biggest Question Mark on Every NBA Team
The 2017-18 NBA season is farther along than you think.
We've already witnessed a coaching change, a big-name trade, countless highlights, social-media beefs and at least a dozen outings from all 30 squads. Strap in, folks, because it's not even Thanksgiving yet.
Who knows what the next five months will hold. But we're far enough along to get an idea of how each team is equipped to handle the trek.
Some of the pictures are clearer than others, but all of them share a common truth—nobody's perfect. Every organization has at least one question mark hovering over it, and we've put the biggest one for each franchise under the microscope.
Atlanta Hawks: Quantity, Quality of Keepers
Rebuilding never sounds more appealing than when you're trapped in the suffocating grip of mediocrity. But the process itself is quite painful, as the Atlanta Hawks are learning quickly in their race to the bottom.
The mounting pile of losses—while aesthetically revolting—is actually fine. The Hawks need the most favorable lottery odds possible, and a minus-3.7 net efficiency rating is a byproduct of that pursuit.
Where this gets dicey is in Atlanta's evaluation of its long-term player prospects. John Collins and Taurean Prince look like no-doubt keepers. But should Dennis Schroder be considered untouchable? You'd have to think Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk would think long and hard about a Schroder deal if it involved dumping bad money and restocking the asset collection.
The questions continue as you work your way through the roster.
Have the Hawks uncovered diamonds in the rough with Isaiah Taylor and/or Tyler Cavanaugh, or are those two capitalizing on the opportunity to compile volume numbers on an awful team? Are there reasons to reserve future rotation spots for DeAndre' Bembry and Tyler Dorsey, or should they upgrade if given the chance? And is anyone from the 25-and-over crop worth having for the rebuild?
Boston Celtics: Inexperienced for a Contender
The NBA's hottest team is its fifth-youngest. It's also the club many left for dead on opening night when All-Star import Gordon Hayward fractured his ankle only five minutes into his debut.
But here the Boston Celtics sit with the NBA's longest winning streak (13 and counting) and the Eastern Conference's best net rating (plus-7.8 points per 100 possessions). Despite dealing away Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder in an active offseason, the Shamrocks sport the Association's stingiest defense. And the kids are playing pivotal roles within the point-prevention machine.
"[Semi] Ojeleye has quick feet on defense," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "[Daniel] Theis is a banger. ... [Jaylen] Brown can defend almost every position, and everyone is talking to each other on switches. Jayson Tatum plays like a five-year veteran."
The talent is there to keep this train rolling, and there are few (if any) better conductors than Brad Stevens. But you wonder if Boston's youth could become an issue down the line.
Only four healthy players have more than three seasons under their belt, and two of their top four scorers are a sophomore (Brown) and a rookie (Tatum). Getting a group that green through three—let alone four—playoff rounds is a tall task of anyone.
Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell's Ceiling
The Brooklyn Nets' previous regime forced the current one to rebuild from scratch. But at least they were able to snag a potential centerpiece in D'Angelo Russell, albeit at a steep price—franchise leading scorer Brook Lopez, a first-round pick and the cap space to accommodate Timofey Mozgov's albatross deal.
If Russell clicks, though, it's easily worth it. And before he went down with a knee injury, it was so far, so good on that front. The 6'5" southpaw was posting career marks all over his stat sheet and establishing himself as one of only eight players averaging 20 points, five assists and four rebounds.
Russell shares that distinction with front-page stars, but he hasn't done enough to be viewed among the Association's celestial bodies. His shooting still lacks efficiency (29.5 percent from three, 68.3 at the stripe). He's neither an elite scorer nor distributor. The Nets are 10 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the bench, although that number is partly a reflection of their entire underwhelming starting group.
There's nothing alarming about these shortcomings, by the way. Russell won't turn 22 until late February—he's younger than six of this year's first-round picks—and he's already adjusting to new coaches, teammates and offensive systems.
Still, the Nets need a better grasp on how good he can become, since that might shape the timeframe and scope of their restoration project.
Charlotte Hornets: Depth
Since the NBA returned to Buzz City in 2004, the Charlotte franchise—first the Bobcats, then the Hornets—only holds three playoff victories, each secured by the 2015-16 iteration. What made that group special? A sufficiently stocked second team capable of protecting (or extending) leads and erasing deficits.
So, what does the current club possess? The least efficient bench mob of any playoff hopeful (minus-10.0 points per 100 possessions, 28th overall).
Cody Zeller is their lone reserve regular shooting above 42 percent, and he's a 7-footer who rarely strays away from the basket. Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and Treveon Graham are all stuck below 40 percent, and Frank Kaminsky's 42.0 ranks second-worst among 7-footers averaging 20-plus minutes.
The starting lineup has been a buzzsaw. The Kemba Walker/Dwight Howard/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist/Jeremy Lamb/Marvin Williams quintet has outscored opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions. When Bacon was filling in for Kidd-Gilchrist, it was plus-12.4. But their next-most utilized lineups are at minus-17.2 and minus-27.6.
Having Nicolas Batum healthy might help in a trickle-down fashion, especially if Lamb keeps imitating a blowtorch. And maybe Steve Clifford can find the right ways to capitalize on Michael Carter-Williams' length and vision.
But we're treating any future hopes with must-see-it-to-believe-it skepticism, because that's how the stat sheet says we should.
Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine's Development
The Chicago Bulls bet big on Zach LaVine. They not only gambled that the dunk king can return to form after tearing his left ACL in February, but they also wagered he'll keep improving and eventually justify trading away in-prime All-Star Jimmy Butler.
These aren't blind hopes. LaVine added at least four points to his scoring average each of the last two seasons and lifted his field-goal percentage both times. He didn't lose his three-point efficiency (38.7 percent) despite a massive uptick in volume (from 3.9 attempts to 6.6) last season, and he's a plug-and-play piece in most lineups since he's comfortable on or off the ball.
Still, in LaVine's best days with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was only the third option on a team that couldn't sniff the playoffs. And he's a nightmare on defense, ranking 441st out of 468 players in defensive real plus-minus last season (minus-2.35), per ESPN.com.
He's also a massive part of Chicago's future, even if he's bound for restricted free agency at year's end. The Bulls didn't make him a centerpiece of the Butler deal to let him walk. They need a backcourt complement for their retooling frontcourt tandem of Lauri Markkanen and Punchin' Bobby Portis.
It's on LaVine to supply more than streaky scoring, solid shooting and spellbinding slams.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Shaky Supporting Cast
The Cleveland Cavaliers haven't reached the first turn of their 2017-18 marathon, and LeBron James is already at a dead sprint. The King has stated his MVP case loud and clear, shooting a career-best 57.9 percent, logging a league-leading (and worrisome) 38.1 minutes, dishing as many assists as he ever has (8.7) and scoring like he hasn't since his first go-round in Northeast Ohio (28.3).
For the last seven years, James' best has been good enough to secure a spot in the Finals. Right now, he's only carrying the Cavs to a disconcerting 8-7 record, dragged down by the league's worst defense and a support staff that looks old, unathletic and dangerously reliant on Isaiah Thomas making a complete recovery from a serious hip injury.
"This Cavaliers roster is demonstrably weaker than the one that lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals in June," Howard Beck wrote for B/R Mag. "At the moment, it's the worst surrounding cast he's had in eight seasons."
Maybe that's not enough to deny Cleveland a fourth straight trip to the championship round. James is still the Eastern Conference's unstoppable force, and there's a chance this reworked roster could be much improved come playoff time. But the unwritten rule of not worrying about LeBron-led teams in November hasn't been this difficult to follow in years.
Dallas Mavericks: Curious Case of Nerlens Noel
Something is going on between the Dallas Mavericks and Nerlens Noel, and it smells awful.
After acquiring him at February's trade deadline, the Mavs raved about Noel as a Tyson Chandler-in-training. Over the offseason, Dallas offered Noel a $70 million pact, which he declined to take his one-year qualifying offer and position himself for 2018 free agency.
Well, the honeymoon period is already over and the marriage could be next to go.
In a matter of months, Noel went from being a franchise anchor for the future to not even being guaranteed minutes on one of the NBA's worst teams. While his per-36-minute marks are mostly on par with his career numbers, he's not doing something (or somethings) Dallas wants and is losing his floor time because of it.
There's time to repair this relationship—the Mavs don't have many prospects with more potential than Noel—but there's also a chance both sides determine they're better off apart. Dallas should have a high pick in a draft class stocked with drool-worthy bigs, and Noel might want more flexibility than head coach Rick Carlisle's rigid system allows.
Denver Nuggets: Unproven Point Guards
Last season, Emmanuel Mudiay was out of the Denver Nuggets rotation and seemingly on his way to the draft-bust bin. Two years ago, Jamal Murray was strengthening his draft stock as the Kentucky Wildcats' leading scorer and starting shooting guard.
Now, this pair holds the point guard keys for a Nuggets team hoping to at least snap a four-year playoff drought.
If that sounds like a fatal flaw, that's because it could be. Mudiay has previously struggled with shooting from all three levels and consistently making sound decisions. And Murray looks like both a marskman by reputation only (career 32.7 percent from three) and a point guard with training wheels (2.4 assists to 2.1 turnovers this season).
All things considered, the experiment is probably going as well as it could. Mudiay has improved his efficiency and cut down his turnovers. Murray has already topped 20 points four times and steered the Nuggets to wins in three of those contests.
But considering the gauntlet of great point guards any Western Conference playoff team must contend with, the Nuggets look undermanned at perhaps the most important position. It helps immensely that Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap can create offense for themselves and their teammates. However, that doesn't decrease the need for dramatic development sooner rather than later in Mudiay and Murray.
Detroit Pistons: Offensive Sustainability
Good luck finding a bigger surprise than the 10-4 Detroit Pistons. They're one of only three teams with top-10 efficiency rankings on offense (eighth) and defense (eighth). And if numbers aren't your thing, they're acing the eye test too.
"The Pistons are playing with a new alertness and ferocity," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "They are flying around on defense, denying passing lanes and screaming out help assignments. [Reggie] Jackson is pushing the pace more often, and everyone is cutting at full speed."
Even still, it's way too early for the Motor City parade planners to start mapping next summer's route. This offense is off to a blazing start, but it looks ripe for regression.
Despite having a similar roster to last year, the Pistons have made massive leaps in efficiency (25th to eighth) and shooting from the field (22nd to 13th) and three (28th to seventh). Almost every rotation player is on pace for a career shooting year, with Tobias Harris topping his previous perimeter best by 14 points, Ish Smith up over seven points on his field-goal high and Andre Drummond nearly doubling his career free-throw conversion rate.
Maybe these are the new Pistons. Or perhaps they're just enjoying the perks of having so many hot streaks run concurrently—in which case, keep your winter clothing close for when they all turn frigid.
Golden State Warriors: Motivation
What's left for the Golden State Warriors to chase?
Over the last three years, they have snapped a 40-year title drought, established a new high mark for regular-season victories and reached a level of offensive efficiency no one has ever topped. They haven't won fewer than 67 games during this stretch; no team had previously reached 65 victories in three straight seasons.
It's a mind-numbing level of success, almost as if the basketball gods are letting the Bay Area faithful gorge after so many lean years. But it has left them with the aforementioned inquiry and no clear answer to it.
"Is it defending the title? Is it finding what makes us a team? I don't know yet," Warriors president and general manger Bob Myers told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne.
Nick Young, Omri Casspi and Jordan Bell don't have championship rings, so maybe that's something? Capturing another world title would give Golden State's nucleus the same number as its nemesis, LeBron James, so perhaps that's some extra fuel.
But really, this could be a season-long challenge for the Dubs to figure out why they should care and how much they need to do it. Their in-game switch is powerful enough to compensate for coasting, and it already looks like the gap between them and everyone else is growing.
Houston Rockets: Chris Paul's Place
The Houston Rockets have sprinted out of the gate and into the league's No. 3 spot in net efficiency. What's more incredible—or concerning, depending on your perspective—is that All-Star addition Chris Paul doesn't even have his running shoes on yet.
The point god last played on opening night, when he was a minus-14 in 33 minutes and a sideline observer for the final four minutes and change. He could potentially provide a massive two-way lift and push Houston further into the championship discussion, but he'll need to make substantial adjustments first.
"Paul is a micromanager in a system where everyone has the freedom to make their own decisions," Jonathan Tjarks wrote for The Ringer. "There's no such thing as a red light when you play for Mike D'Antoni. ... Houston had one of the greatest offenses of all time without him. They don't need Paul to make the offense his own."
Paul, who's expected back soon from his lengthy absence with a bruised left knee, must let go and trust his talents, teammates and coaches to make this work.
He'll have on-ball opportunities to spell James Harden, but Paul also needs to embrace off-ball play as a spot-up sniper (39.3 three-point percentage the past three seasons). His defense will be an asset, and if he makes his offense the same, he'll have the biggest influence on raising Houston's ceiling.
Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo's Star Power
The offseason exodus of All-Star talent out of the East opened up avenues for any number of young players to break through. But who predicted Victor Oladipo would come crashing through like the Circle City's Kool-Aid Man?
If the former No. 2 pick can keep this up, he'll rewrite his NBA narrative. To this point, he'd been adequate, always hovering slightly above or below an average player efficiency rating. But now he looks elite, shattering his previous bests in points (23.2), field-goal percentage (47.4) and three-point percentage (44.3).
"I think this is who I am," Oladipo said, per NBC Sports' Dan Feldman. "I think I can bring that every night, and I'm going to. ... People might think it's a high. It's fine. Hey, I guess I haven't proven myself yet."
That's where the raised-eyebrow emoji comes in.
Oladipo never approached this level during his first four big league seasons. If you think the Oklahoma City Thunder held him back, there might be truth to that. But the Orlando Magic tried more than once to put him in a prominent role before changing directions when they weren't winning that way.
This could still be a bona fide breakout, and it would change the Indiana Pacers' franchise trajectory if it is. But it's hard to frame it as anything more than an encouraging start this early in the campaign.
Los Angeles Clippers: Realistic Upside
The Los Angeles Clippers opted against an organizational overhaul this summer when three core members (Chris Paul, JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford) sought out greener pastures. L.A. tried taking the reload-not-rebuild route by maxing out Blake Griffin and surrounding him with mostly win-now veterans.
The approach might have been shortsighted for a group with a quick-playoff-exit ceiling and a swiftly sinking floor. The Clippers have been dreadful on defense (21st in efficiency), and their offense lacks creativity behind Griffin and super-sub Lou Williams. They're physically beat up and mentally drained by their current six-game losing streak.
This could already be long-look-in-the-mirror time. With DeAndre Jordan's unrestricted free agency looming, L.A. might need to examine at least a partial teardown if it feels as far from title contention as it looks. The Clippers have plenty of pieces who could help contenders, so it only makes sense to keep them if they view themselves as such.
When Griffin—with his lengthy injury history—is your only sure thing, you're in dire need of more certainties. Clearly, L.A. saw something in this rebuilt roster, but a sluggish start has made it tough to tell exactly what.
Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Can't Shoot
Alarms were raised about Lonzo Ball's scoring potential long before he first began laying bricks with the Los Angeles Lakers.
His funky shooting form has essentially deprived him of an in-between game, and as only a so-so athlete, he's never been a dynamic finisher around the basket. While ultimately full of praise, the Jason Kidd comparisons pointed to possible shooting struggles, too. "Ason" Kidd—as in "no J"—had a dismal .385/.272/.698 slash line as an NBA freshman.
Even still, Ball's inaccuracy issues are haunting. In 15 outings this season, he's shot above 30 percent just three times. If he keeps up at this rate, he'll post the worst true shooting percentage (36.4) of any player in the shot-clock era (minimum 2,000 minutes).
His aggressiveness has been clocked at every step, but passivity isn't the problem. He's getting almost a dozen shots per night despite being only eighth on the club in scoring. If he weren't face-of-the-franchise Lonzo Ball, it's doubtful anyone would be clamoring for more shots from a guy shooting 40.6 percent in the restricted area and 24.3 percent everywhere else.
Granted, Ball brings so much else to the table that it's unfair to focus solely on his shooting. But when he's such a non-threat that defenses can leave him unattended, his weakness cuts into the potency of his strengths.
Memphis Grizzlies: Offensive Firepower
Apologies for spinning a broken record, but significant changes to the roster haven't altered Bluff City's basketball soundtrack.
The Memphis Grizzlies are still a handful thanks to their dogged defense and the skills of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, but their bottom-half offense remains an impediment to their success. They're clinging to the playoff picture on the threads that are Tyreke Evans' impossible-to-sustain start (51.3 percent shooting from a career 44.6 percent shooter) and the fingers-crossed hope that Chandler Parsons is finally healthy(ish).
Even without Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies continue operating at grind-and-grind speeds (fourth-slowest in the Association). They're bottom-third in points (24th), assists (22nd) and three-point percentage (26th). Their fourth, fifth and sixth scorers are a current second-rounder (Dillon Brooks), a former one (James Ennis) and a 31-year-old who hadn't played since an April 2016 ruptured Achilles (Mario Chalmers).
Having JaMychal Green and Ben McLemore healthy should flesh out the scoring depth, but the Grizzlies are still set to sink or swim on the shoulders of Gasol and Conley. They've parlayed that formula into a playoff berth before, but the Western Conference standards continue to climb.
Miami Heat: Wing Scoring
After making 2016-17 a tale of two seasons, the Miami Heat are no longer operating at the extremes. The problem is that's pushed them to the dreaded middle, a place no one wants to be after injecting as much coin as Miami has in its current core.
How can the Heat change their fate? Well, they have ramped up the defensive intensity (fifth in efficiency during November), but their offense has malfunctioned. Goran Dragic has been as productive as one could hope, and Hassan Whiteside has been more help than harm. James Johnson has even stepped forward from what was a career year. But the wings have been eyesores at the offensive end.
Dion Waiters is still battling the ankle problem that sidelined him late last season, and his PER is down 20 percent (11.6 from 14.5). Tyler Johnson has been trapped in a season-long funk (35.5 percent from the field, 31.7 outside), and Josh Richardson is shooting career-worst rates from the field (38.4) and three (30.4). Wayne Ellington is limited as a perimeter specialist, and Rodney McGruder might be lost for the year.
With Justise Winslow deployed more as a small-ball 4, the aforementioned players are the only internal options to fix this. The upside is real and substantial with Johnson and Richardson, but so are the current shortcomings. This is likely to rest with Waiters, a risky proposition with his nagging ankle pain and inconsistent past.
Milwaukee Bucks: Jabari Parker's Future
The Milwaukee Bucks aren't waiting on Jabari Parker, the former No. 2 pick who's rehabbing the second ACL tear of his brief career. They'd be dead in the water if they did, since he's not expected back until sometime around the All-Star break.
The Bucks are moving forward with Giannis Antetokounmpo charging into the MVP field, Malcolm Brogdon breaking out again and Eric Bledsoe attempting to play the role of missing piece. This isn't the same Milwaukee team Parker starred on last season, when he went for 20.1 points (on 49.0 percent shooting), 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists before going down.
It is, however, the same Milwaukee team that plotted his path to 2018 restricted free agency by not agreeing to a contract extension with him last month. With the Bledsoe pickup moving the Bucks closer to the luxury-tax threshold, they'll now face a tough decision on how to handle their scoring forward who played just 152 of a possible 246 games over his first three seasons.
"He could work well as an iso closer in crunch time...and he'd help shore up the offense when Giannis sits," Andrew Sharp wrote for Sports Illustrated. "But is that enough to bet on him going forward? Jabari can clearly help, but...it will be really interesting to see whether the team decides to invest its resources in him as the co-star of the future."
There's a scenario where Parker returns in time to make Milwaukee the team no one wants to face in the postseason. There's another in which the Bucks get antsy and use him to rid themselves of a weighty contract commitment. It's hard to think of another player with a wider range of possibilities in his immediate future.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Defensive Incompetence
Direct from Tom Thibodeau's nightmares to your digital devices, check out the grotesque defensive data on the new-look Minnesota Timberwolves:
107.7 efficiency, 26th
49.3 field-goal percentage allowed, 30th
108.9 opponents' points per game, 25th
Despite possessing the uber-talented trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins, the Wolves remain too one-sided to make noise in the West. They can score enough most nights to mask their deficiency, but it takes more than a mountain of points to topple the Rockets—let alone the Warriors—four times in a seven-game series.
"Right now, we're getting into scoring games. We got a lot of guys who can score the ball, so we're able to win some," Jeff Teague told Bleacher Report earlier this season. "But down the stretch against really good teams, that's not going to happen."
Improved awareness would do wonders for Towns and Wiggins, and there's a wealth of defensive information to be gleaned from Butler and Taj Gibson. Since Minnesota already boasts a top-10 attack, any notable gain on defense could have league-wide ramifications.
But the switch hasn't been flipped yet, and there's no guarantee it ever will.
New Orleans Pelicans: Everything But Brow and Boogie
The fantasy-style pairing of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins has been everything the New Orleans Pelicans dreamed it would and then some.
Both bigs are top-10 scorers and rebounders; no one else shares that distinction. And when they play together, the Pelicans perform like a top-10 offense (108.0 rating, would be sixth) and a top-five defense (99.7, would be fifth).
But it takes more than two to tango in the wild West, and the Pellies aren't built to win numbers games against the elites. Jrue Holiday, who's often fashioned as the third wheel in a Big Three, is posting his worst PER to date (12.0). De facto fourth option, E'Twaun Moore, is averaging double-digit points for the first time as a 28-year-old. Fifth scorer, Jameer Nelson, was waived by the Nuggets last month.
New Orleans relies on Davis and Cousins for everything, getting 37-plus minutes per night from both (and Holiday). Even then, it's barely keeping its head above water. The Pelicans might not have another choice, though, with Cousins' free agency looming and head coach Alvin Gentry's seat among the hottest in the business.
New York Knicks: The Frontcourt Logjam
If you're unfamiliar with the congestion in the New York Knicks frontcourt, we'll let sophomore center Willy Hernangomez bring you up to speed.
"Right now we have too many big guys," Hernangomez said, per Fred Kerber of the New York Post.
Hernangomez knows that better than anyone. Despite appearing as a pivotal piece of the 'Bockers rebuild as a rookie, he has seen his playing time sliced in half this season. And the overcrowding is worsening now that Joakim Noah is back from his banned-substance suspension.
Even with Kristaps Porzingis having (almost) vacated the center spot, there still aren't enough minutes to go around. Enes Kanter has done nothing to lose his starting gig—save for his nonsensical LeBron prodding—and Kyle O'Quinn continues to deliver when called upon. That's why Hernangomez is fighting for floor time, and Noah could be a long shot to see any of substance.
It's not a bad problem to have—it's certainly preferable to their lack of reliable options at point guard—but it's still a puzzle for head coach Jeff Hornacek. And if Porzingis can keep the Knicks in (or at least close to) the playoff hunt, Hornacek's handling of this will carry more relevance than anyone could have imagined.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Crunch-Time Collapses
The Oklahoma City Thunder are in much better shape than their 7-7 record suggests. They're getting 20-plus points per night from all three of their stars, and their plus-6.3 net rating is fourth-best in the NBA.
But late in games, they've been atrocious. Dumpster fires are more controlled than their crunch-time execution. They're just 1-6 in games within five points in the final five minutes and somehow worse than that mark (minus-49.8 points (!) per 100 possessions in the clutch).
Their offense often runs too vanilla, which isn't surprising for a club that isolates as much as anyone. OKC has the talent to triumph in these one-on-one battles, but the actions are predictable and stagnant off the ball. It's less about bringing the three stars together than it is taking turns attacking the defense.
But the bigger drag has been at the defensive end, which is wild when the Thunder have been the league's second-best stoppers. The floodgates have burst late in games, though, to the unimaginable tune of 160.0 points allowed per 100 possessions.
This feels like a flukey and fixable issue, especially for a team that rocked the boat as much as the Thunder did this summer. Still, the longer it lingers, the harder time they could have securing a favorable seed for the second season.
Orlando Magic: Margin for Error
Any fast-starting surprise squad faces the same question ever year: Are they for real? The Orlando Magic have been peppered with that inquiry over their 8-7 opening.
It'll take weeks (if not months) to reach a conclusion, but what we do know is the offense is being propped up by some uncharacteristically scorching shooting.
Remember when Aaron Gordon was a non-shooting threat? Well, he's one of the three-point percentage leaders now (50.0). Oh, and Nikola Vucevic has not only embraced the arc, he's hitting at a 39.4 percent clip beyond it. Evan Fournier is comfortably outpacing his career shooting bests from all three levels. Jonathon Simmons is hitting his field-goal percentage high while more than doubling his scoring output.
What happens if any of these four come crashing back to earth? What happens if multiple guys drop together? Good-to-great teams can get away with not always having their best. It's hard to see the Magic enjoying that luxury unless their defense continues improving and their offense avoids major regression.
Philadelphia 76ers: Ball Security
The Philadelphia 76ers' glistening collection of youth might be unparalleled. (Pours one out for Sam Hinkie.) In almost every aspect, that's a very good thing.
But turnovers are the exception, and they're the biggest threat to burst Philly's playoff bubble. It's not just that they're debilitating, it's that they're almost inevitable as growing pains for the youngsters steering the Sixers toward the promised land.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons don't have a season's worth of NBA experience between them. So, it's hard to cast too much blame their way for both being among the league's 10 worst turnover offenders (Embiid is fourth, Simmons sits ninth). And since they command such sizable shares of the offense, it's no surprise the Sixers sit dead last with a 17.5 turnover percentage.
This offense could be too young to be special. But the 20th spot in efficiency feels far too low for a team with a modernized Hakeem Olajuwon and a legitimate 6'10" point guard. Tack on an elite perimeter crop—tied for third in made threes, eighth in percentage—and there's an outline of a point-producing bulldozer.
But before the Sixers can steamroll opponents, they'll have to stop stumbling over themselves.
Phoenix Suns: The Other Prospects
Even as Devin Booker fleshes out his game, the Phoenix Suns know what they have in him. He could stop developing today, and he'd still be a dominant scoring force. To a lesser extent, the same could be said of inside-the-arc scoring forward T.J. Warren.
Those two prospects have an identity, which makes them unique in this rebuild. Josh Jackson hasn't had the opportunity to start forming his, but it's painfully early in his career. The same excuse can't be used as easily with Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss or Tyler Ulis. And it's still unclear if Alex Len is worth keeping beyond the one-year, $4.2 million qualifying offer he inked in September.
Chriss seems to be backtracking on offense, despite an uptick in three-point shooting. For a 6'10" power forward with his hops, a 40.2 field-goal percentage is almost unfathomable. Bender appears the more skilled of the two but also the further from finding his niche. The Suns could probably give him more freedom to create, but his career .371/.298/.591 shooting slash might make them understandably hesitant.
The results aren't important right now with Phoenix playing only for the best possible draft lottery odds. But any and all signs of growth are needed sooner rather than later. The scope and schedule of this rebuild changes dramatically whether Chriss and/or Bender can be prominent players in it.
Portland Trail Blazers: Offensive Balance
Did we miss the memo about the Portland Trail Blazers relocating to Bizarro World? The near-.500 record feels about right, but who had them using a dominant defense to compensate for their middling offense?
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are doing their point-producing parts. Lillard is lagging behind his normal efficiency, but 24 points and six assists are still 24 points and six assists. McCollum, meanwhile, is doing a little less distributing but way more net-shredding from long range (53.1 percent). And Jusuf Nurkic is mostly meeting expectations with 15.4 points on 46.4 percent shooting.
But the Blazers look light beyond their top trio.
They finished last year with five double-digit scorers; they have three right now and no obvious candidates to join the club. Evan Turner is knocking on the door, but he's doing so without a perimeter shot. Al-Farouq Aminu helps in a lot of ways, but scoring is rarely one.
Maurice Harkless' shooting is way down, and this isn't the first time he's had problems with his touch. Pat Connaughton wasn't even a rotation player the last two seasons.
The financially motivated move to shed Allen Crabbe's salary might help in the long run, but the Blazers are missing his scoring punch. That void will grow more glaring if Harkless can't right the ship and Connaughton continues tapering off.
Sacramento Kings: Everything
Not to throw a cold, wet blanket around the Sacramento Kings, but has anything gone according to plan this season?
Their veteran free-agency additions have flopped. Their youngsters have struggled to spark anything bigger than the occasional flash. At least their comically awful minus-14.7 net efficiency rating has them in the driver's seat for the best 2018 draft lottery odds.
De'Aaron Fox flies around the court, but he can't shoot. Buddy Hield can pile up points quickly, but he was demoted from the starting five. Skal Labissiere is a skilled scorer, but his defensive deficiencies limit his floor time. Bogdan Bogdanovic has transitioned fairly smoothly, but he should since he's 25 years old. Willie Cauley-Stein and Justin Jackson haven't moved their ceilings above complementary player.
Even in a rebuilding year, you'd like to see more positives than this. Their youth will likely spend the campaign cycling through peaks and valleys, but Sacramento needs to see a better return on its investments in the veterans.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard's Recovery
It feels like forever ago that Kawhi Leonard felt like the San Antonio Spurs' only certainty.
But that was before a quadriceps tendinopathy nixed his preseason and delayed his regular-season debut indefinitely. The last time we saw the potential MVP candidate in action, he was pouring 26 points on the Warriors in 24 minutes before an ankle injury prematurely ended his playoff run.
There's actually some good news here, since the silver and black always find ways to generate some. The roster hasn't wilted without Leonard (or Tony Parker) and has instead defended like crazy and followed LaMarcus Aldridge's lead on the offensive end to a 9-6 start.
Of course, there's a cap on how many good things can happen for the Spurs sans Leonard. If he's not the best two-way player in the game, he's on a short list of the elite. San Antonio doesn't have a more important player at either end. That could be why the rehab is taking so long, but it's fair to wonder how much time he'll need to get back in action and then to full speed.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry's Changing Role
Riding or dying with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan treated the Toronto Raptors well. They booked playoff berths in each of the past four seasons and secured three postseason series victories during that stretch.
But they feel like aiming higher requires modernizing their offense and becoming less dependent on their All-Stars. They're launching nearly seven more threes (31.2 from 24.3) and averaging four additional assists (22.8 from 18.5) than last season.
It's unclear if it's made them better, though, and they say that answer won't be available for months.
"It's for the playoffs," Lowry said, per Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post. "So we have to get to the playoffs and then we'll see in the playoffs if it's working."
Right now, it's not working for Lowry's individual production. His scoring average (14.4) hasn't been this low since 2012-13, and his field-goal percentage (40.9) is his worst in three seasons. He's never attempted fewer free throws (2.7).
Maybe he'll eventually benefit from having a stronger team around him, but with the NBA being a star-driven league, it seems risky to move away from an in-prime centerpiece.
Utah Jazz: Scoring of Any Kind
As soon as Gordon Hayward penned his way out of Salt Lake City, you knew it was going to be a lean year for the Utah Jazz offense. But this feels disappointing even on the tempered-expectations scale.
Utah's top scorer, Rodney Hood, is shooting 39.8 percent. Rookie Donovan Mitchell, already No. 2 on the scoring hierarchy, is at 38.8 percent. Skip past restricted-area specialist Rudy Gobert, and there's Ricky Rubio with his customary sub-40 field-goal percentage (37.3, to be precise) in the fourth-option spot.
Add it all up, and it's unsightly from all angles. The volume categories are bleak—28th in scoring, 27th in field-goal shooting and assists. The efficiency marks are no better—26th in offensive rating, 27th in turnover percentage.
The Jazz still have one of the Association's strongest defenses, but that's not enough to get past their offensive obstacles. As often as you've been told that defense wins championships, history has rarely been kind to lopsided squads.
Washington Wizards: Second-Team Consistency
Stop us if you've heard this one before: The Washington Wizards have a dominant starting group and a suspect second unit that threatens to undermine it.
Granted, if John Wall and Bradley Beal are on your team, you're probably going to have a drop-off once they sit. But Washington's two starting groups—used before and after Markieff Morris' return—are plus-85 on the season. The most commonly used all-sub unit is a minus-4.
The Wizards' reserves struggle with spacing (33.8 percent from three) and defending without fouling (20.2 per 36 minutes, 27th overall). The former problem could worsen quickly if Kelly Oubre (41.9 percent) and Mike Scott (43.5) crash back to reality. The latter might always be an issue with Ian Mahinmi manning the middle (career 5.6 fouls per 36 minutes, seventh-highest in the 2000s).
Staggering minutes could combat this to some degree, but it might not be as simple as it sounds. The Wizards need to maximize the impact of Wall and Beal together, but those are the only self-sufficient scorers on the roster. Tasking Morris or Otto Porter with goosing the bench offense might be too much, and it's not worth it if it hurts the starters more than it helps the subs.