Biggest Question for Every NBA Team to Answer During Rest of Season
Every NBA team will spend the home stretch of the 2017-18 regular season searching for answers.
It doesn't matter if they're contending or rebuilding, angling for the top seed or bottoming. They've all got personalized mysteries that need solving.
Naturally, the stakes will vary. A club hoping to determine who'll man a critical rotation spot in a title chase has more hanging in the balance than one trying to coax some growth out of a 21-year-old noob in a rebuilding effort. But these things are relative.
For that bottom-feeding team dying to find a way out of the basement, the faintest glimmer of improvement from a prospect can feel like a major accomplishment.
The point is: All 30 teams face need-to-know scenarios coming out of the All-Star break. And they all matter.
Is Dennis Schroder a keeper?
The Atlanta Hawks' 24-year-old point guard ranks dead last in effective field-goal percentage among high-volume shooters (900 shots minimum) this season, and he checks in second from the bottom in defensive Real Plus-Minus among point guards.
The answer to the Atlanta Hawks' key stretch-run question would seem to be a resounding "no."
Except...it's difficult to figure out which players might help you play winning basketball in the future when you're committed to losing in the present. It's like trying to project sprint speed by watching someone walk.
Schroder has real talents. He's uncommonly fast and fearless. The Hawks need to figure out how to weigh those gifts (and his capacity for improvement) against a pretty discouraging statistical profile. John Collins and Taurean Prince are two viable long-term building blocks. Is Schroder a third?
Can the offense catch up?
Since Dec. 1, the Boston Celtics rank 23rd in offensive efficiency. That's a significant sample of the season—one big enough to raise serious concerns about this team's ability to score against playoff competition.
Boston owns the league's top defensive rating on the year (even if it's only ninth-best over the last calendar month), so even when shots aren't falling, this team generally stays competitive. But if we accept the truism that real contention requires top-10 performances on both ends, the Celtics, who barely meet half that criteria over the last month, fall woefully short.
Kyrie Irving can carry offenses on his own in crunch time, but the Celtics must find a more sustainable source of scoring.
Greg Monroe should juice up an anemic bench attack, though he'll need help from perimeter players like Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart.
Can Spencer Dinwiddie and D'Angelo Russell play together?
Spencer Dinwiddie leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and has won the Brooklyn Nets several games with decisive clutch buckets. Brooklyn has to figure out if that's a problem, which would only be the case if Dinwiddie can't play with D'Angelo Russell.
Good things happen when the rock's in Dinwiddie's hands, but Russell very much prefers to be the offensive decision-maker. His team-high 32.5 usage percentage says so.
The pair has been outscored in the small sample of time they've shared the floor, but not by much more than the Nets' overall net rating on the year. There's hope they can coexist, particularly since both have the size (if not the acumen or willingness just yet) to defend either backcourt spot. Dinwiddie's 40 percent hit rate on catch-and-shoot treys also bodes well.
Two playmakers are better than one. They give an offense greater variety and threaten defenses from both sides of the floor. If these final few weeks yield chemistry between Dinwiddie and Russell, Brooklyn will head into next season with some serious scoring potential.
Are we really going to do this again?
With ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reporting the Charlotte Hornets have parted ways with general manager Rich Cho, the question facing this organization is purely ideological.
Will whomever Charlotte puts in charge next be content to run it back with a projected payroll north of $117 million next year? Will he foolishly hope the same roster can somehow improve on this season's likely lottery finish? Or will a new, more forward-looking approach take hold?
This isn't necessarily something we'll see play out on the floor—unless owner Michael Jordan sanctions all-out tanking, which feels unlikely. But we should hope to see signs of the franchise's direction in the form of rumored hires (Mitch Kupchak is not an encouraging one) and, perhaps, a few more minutes for young players.
Ultimately, Charlotte's fate depends on the offseason, when it will either tear this mess down and start over...or bury its head in the sand one more time.
Can they win the tank race?
"We're going to start looking at blocks of games where we'll be having a few guys who haven't been playing much or at all have a significant role," Chicago Bulls vice president John Paxson told reporters of his team's post-break plans. "The whole goal in our position is to evaluate what we have on this roster."
This is coded language. It means Chicago is tanking, which it should. You don't play Cristiano Felicio over Robin Lopez unless you're trying to lose.
The Bulls emerge from the break with 37 losses and a winning percentage better than seven other teams. That means they'll really need to bottom out to have a shot at even top-five lottery odds. And they won't be the only team losing deliberately. This is the last season to crater on purpose before the lottery structure changes in ways that won't reward abject tanking as richly.
We're going to see a highly motivated handful of clubs racing to the bottom.
If only the Bulls had gone, say, 6-6 during that ridiculous 10-2 stretch in December...
Bonus: Will Zach LaVine show enough to warrant a big extension this summer?
Can they play both ends?
Obviously, whether LeBron James chooses to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers or go elsewhere this summer is the uber-concern. But what he decides in July depends very much on how his team performs over these last 25 games.
If the rebuilt Cavs, led by a suddenly re-engaged James, can play league-average defense, it'll augur well for their playoff fate. And if the Cavs have postseason success, perhaps cruising to the Finals again despite a stouter field in their way, you'd have to think James would be more inclined to stick around.
There's little doubt the Cavaliers will score. They spent the pre-break schedule sleepwalking to a top-five offensive rating and have added both shooting and playmaking. But will the rotation's overhaul yield better results on D?
James' and Cleveland's futures depend on the answer.
Can Dennis Smith finish strong?
Literally, yes. Yes, he can.
But Smith's work at the rim is something we already know about.
He needs to use the season's closing stretch to prove he's growing in three key areas, which he highlighted for Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News: "I want to improve on those things and prepare for my sophomore year—making certain reads, a lot of things defensively, shoot the ball better—there’s a lot of things I have to do."
Smith's scoring efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler ranks in the 31st percentile overall, and his effective field-goal percentage ranks last in the league among players who've logged at least 1400 minutes. On D, Dallas is a whopping 10 points per 100 possessions better when Smith sits.
The Mavs would welcome improvement in any one of the three areas Smith correctly pegged as trouble spots.
How will Paul Millsap fit in?
The Denver Nuggets' biggest free-agent acquisition has played just 16 games because of a wrist injury that required surgery, but Paul Millsap is due back in March. How he reintegrates into a team that has gotten into a groove over the last month (8-3 with a 115.5 offensive rating since Jan. 23) will determine how seriously playoff foes take the Nuggets.
Nothing has changed since the offseason. Millsap is still an ideal fit alongside Nikola Jokic, and the defensive intensity he brings remains vital to (and missing from) Denver's profile.
The Nuggets went 9-7 in games Millsap played before injury, and they outscored opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. That figure is higher than the one attached to Jokic, which suggests the only thing preventing a Denver run upon Millsap's return might be chemistry concerns.
But Millsap is a low-maintenance pro who has always contributed where necessary without taking things away from teammates. This should go well.
Is Stan Van Gundy's job on the line?
If the Detroit Pistons don't make the playoffs with a roster built on win-now moves, it won't bode well for Van Gundy's future.
Lottery picks have struggled to develop on Van Gundy's watch, and big deals doled out to Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond compromised Detroit's flexibility going forward. The Blake Griffin acquisition eliminated it entirely.
That's not all on Van Gundy (whose time in charge of personnel moves also included paying Josh Smith great sums of money to go away the year after signing him and overcompensating Jodie Meeks, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic), but it's fair to say he didn't excel in his dual roles as coach and executive. Rather obviously, the uninspiring results arose because SVG adopted the coach's approach (win tonight) more often than the general manager's (win tomorrow).
Making the playoffs shouldn't count as vindication, but the Pistons and Van Gundy probably view it that way.
Fall short, and Van Gundy, whose five-year contract runs out after next season, might suddenly be on the hot seat.
Golden State Warriors
Will they snap out of it?
"We know it's time now to get the right habits going into the playoffs, trying to get in a groove," Draymond Green told Chris Haynes of ESPN.com. "So we've got to come back ready to go to work. Look forward to trying to close out the season the right way."
Plagued by sluggish first quarters, half-assed defensive effort and turnover-itis, the Warriors haven't looked much like a defending champion lately. That's largely excusable; it's tough to summon urgency when earned confidence meets the fatigue of three straight protracted playoff runs.
The Houston Rockets are terrifying. The Cavs retooled. Several other contenders look serious. If the Warriors don't play more like their best selves down the stretch, it'll only get harder to believe they can do it when the games really matter. Nobody's asking for a fully flipped switch and a 24-0 finish. But a little more focus and intensity, just as hints of what's possible, would be nice.
Will Houston strike the right balance?
We already know the Houston Rockets are good enough to overtake the Warriors for the West's top seed. They took care of that just before the break.
Now, as Houston tries to sustain that valuable positioning, it'll have to weigh that goal against self-preservation.
James Harden wore down conspicuously during the 2017 postseason and effectively called it quits midway through the Rockets' series against the San Antonio Spurs. He'd carried a massive burden all year and simply ran out of gas. Chris Paul has been good for a physical breakdown, particularly in the playoffs, for years.
Injuries are up across the league. Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com noted that the NBA surpassed 3,000 games lost due to injury over a month earlier than it did last season. Houston has already gone without Paul, Harden, Luc Mbah a Moute, Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon for stretches this year.
The Rockets aren't wired to take their foot off the pedal, but they need to show some restraint—even if it costs them a win or two.
Can Indy do it on the road?
The Indiana Pacers haven't been so hot away from home. They amassed a 13-14 mark before the break.
They'll play 14 of their final 24 contests on the road.
So if the Pacers intend to secure home-court advantage in the first round, and possibly win a playoff series in what was supposed to be a lost season, they'll have to do it by reversing a year-long trend.
The Washington Wizards won't have John Wall for the stretch run, and Indiana begins the second half just a half-game behind the Wiz. Both the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers have been surging, though, so the Pacers can't just rely on slippage from Washington.
Los Angeles Clippers
How good is this new starting five?
Austin Rivers is nobody's point guard of the future, but he's teamed with Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris and DeAndre Jordan to give the Los Angeles Clippers' an intriguing first unit. Those guys compiled a plus-13.7 net rating in limited action before the break, and there's a lot to like in the group's overall makeup.
Plenty of shooting, some perimeter defense, a rim-roller...it's all there.
The Clips need to figure out how interested they are in keeping this bunch together because Bradley and Jordan are both slated for unrestricted free agency. If that unit leads L.A. to a playoff berth and develops some chemistry while coming anywhere close to the net rating it has so far, maybe it's worth keeping together.
That'd be an expensive conclusion, but it's one Los Angeles may not want to rule out entirely.
Los Angeles Lakers
Is Lonzo Ball an asset?
"It's gonna be really fun to have him out there pushing the basketball and putting guys in different spots and giving confidence to other guys," Brandon Ingram told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com, conveying excitement about Ball's post-break return from injury. "It's just gonna make our offense even better."
Ball makes the Lakers better. There's no getting around the on/off splits or the spike in assist rate and defensive efficiency when he plays. But if the Lakers' aim is to attract marquee free agents—serious professional difference-makers intent on winning big—they need to determine whether the baggage attached to Ball helps or hinders that endeavor.
Can L.A. reach some kind of accord with Ball's father? Can it prevent him from undermining its coach and making proclamations about his son's future? With Ball returning to the rotation, now's the time to see if the Lakers can find a way to calm the maelstrom surrounding him.
All that stuff is noise, but free agents can hear it. And it doesn't sound great.
When's the shutdown coming?
You know it's imminent. It has to be.
Marc Gasol is 33 with foot surgery in his not-so-distant rearview. Mike Conley is already finished for the year. Chandler Parsons' season never really started.
With the highest lottery pick they've had a crack at in years sitting right there in front of them and, critically, no other way to add talent because of bloated salary commitments, the Grizzlies have to be thinking about sitting Gasol and gunning for a high pick.
That approach is anathema to everything Gasol has stood for in his career, so the conversation on a shutdown will be difficult. It'll also be necessary.
Set the over/under at March 1.
Is .500 enough?
We ask because, like it or not, the Miami Heat are basically a break-even team.
That's what they were last year, even if they arrived at that mark with two dramatically different stretches, one 11-30, another 30-11. And that's basically what they are this year, heading into the break at 30-28 but toting a marginally negative point differential that says they're worse than their record.
In other words, we know what to expect from this group.
In terms of opponent winning percentage, Miami has it easy. Only three teams face a softer remaining slate. But with Detroit adding Blake Griffin in an obvious win-now move and the Hornets being perpetually desperate for success, the Heat can't take these final two months for granted—particularly since all seven playoff seeds above them are occupied by hotter teams.
The Heat hit the break with three wins in their last 10 games. Nobody in the top seven had fewer than five.
Is the post-Jason Kidd surge sustainable?
Based on expected regression in three-point stats, probably not.
In the first 11 games after Kidd got the boot, Milwaukee's opponents made 33.1 percent of their threes, tied for the fifth-lowest opponent three-point percentage in the league during that span. It's possible the Bucks are playing a little harder, closing out with more commitment and adhering to a sounder scheme.
But it's also possible they've been a little lucky.
The Bucks have been as hot as anyone but Toronto in the East. They've got some momentum rolling, and should finish in the middle of the playoff pack. If they prove the first month of the post-Kidd era is more new normal than anomaly, they could climb into a new tier.
Bonus: Is Giannis Antetokounmpo's nagging knee soreness a major or minor concern?
What's playoff seeding worth?
With the San Antonio Spurs' savior on leave (more on that later), the Minnesota Timberwolves could climb as high as third in the West with a strong closing run.
But would it be worth it?
According to Britt Robson of the Athletic: "The Wolves certainly performed like an exhausted team heading into the All-Star hiatus. Breaking the season down into 10-game increments, the team yielded its most points, most rebounds, most assists, most second-chance points and highest true shooting percentage in games 51-60."
Minnesota was breaking down before the break, but head coach Tom Thibodeau isn't known for his sympathy in situations like this. Will he push his beleaguered team too hard, demanding heavy minutes and shortening his rotation?
Or will he...
Who are we kidding? He's never done anything else.
New Orleans Pelicans
Is Anthony Davis leaving?
As far as the New Orleans Pelicans are concerned, this is the only question that matters now, later and forever.
So when Anthony Davis discusses players like Kevin Garnett expressing regret about not asking for a trade sooner than they did, it's the only thing worth paying attention to.
"It makes you think, 'cause you're wondering if you're following in that same path," Davis told ESPN. "But then again, you're like, 'This year could be the year.' So, just got to take it year by year and just see, and see where the team is going, what direction they want to go to and just see where their head is."
Will the Pelicans go on a run? Will they make the playoffs? Will they do something (anything!) to convince Davis he's in the right place?
AD hits free agency in 2021. Get used to discussing his future constantly between now and then.
New York Knicks
What is Emmanuel Mudiay?
The outcry against marginalizing rookie Frank Ntilikina is understandable. He's young, the New York Knicks are bad and they badly need their young talent to develop.
But Ntilikina is a teenager under team control for four more years after this one. He's not going anywhere.
Emmanuel Mudiay is a high lottery pick now playing for his second team, and he happens to occupy Ntilikina's position. He'll also move ahead of the Knicks rookie and into the starting lineup for the stretch run. Perhaps most importantly, Mudiay is only under team control for two more years after this one. That means there's more urgency for the Knicks to figure out what kind of player he might become.
There's a case to be made that New York should just toss both point guards out there and see what happens. But to really know what Mudiay can and can't do, it's probably best to give him the ball and let him grow...or fail.
Either way, the Knicks learn something worth knowing.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Was Andre Roberson really that vital?
The Oklahoma City Thunder are 9-11 without Andre Roberson, and their defense tumbled off a cliff in the immediate aftermath of his season-ending knee injury.
A guy routinely exploited—to the point of being run off the floor—in playoff matchups can't possibly be that valuable, can he? The 20 games we've seen from OKC without Roberson suggest he can, but we've got another 20-something to examine between now and the end of the season, and Oklahoma City had better find a way to defend (and win more than it loses) without Roberson.
Is Alex Abrines the answer? Terrance Ferguson? Josh Huestis? Big lineups with Paul George at the 2?
Playoff seeding will depend on compensating for Roberson's absence.
Is Jonathan Isaac a cornerstone?
Jonathan Isaac, the Orlando Magic's fifth overall pick, hasn't seen much action this season. He initially sprained his ankle on Nov. 11 and hasn't played a game since Dec. 26. That's less than ideal for a lottery-bound franchise that should be using this wasted year to conduct a careful study on its prized prospect.
Ahead of Isaac getting back into actual games with the Magic's G League affiliate, head coach Frank Vogel offered a reminder of what makes the rookie so tantalizing. He telling Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:
"He's in the passing lanes even when he's not trying to be, just because he’s so long. He plays in his stance and has great shot-fake discipline. He stays down when people are trying to get him off his feet. He has the ability to switch and guard smaller guys. His length in the paint and around the basket changes shots, and his length on the perimeter—both being hard to beat off the bounce and contesting perimeter jump shots—changes our defense."
It feels safe to label Aaron Gordon a future quality starter, but that means the Magic have just one sure thing. It's up to Isaac to give them two.
Can Joel Embiid stay healthy?
This is a little bit like the overarching question about Anthony Davis' future with the Pelicans. It'll always be the most important concern in the Philadelphia 76ers' forecast.
Ben Simmons has been better running things without Embiid lately. B/R's Dan Favale pointed out how Philly's net rating with Simmons on the floor and Embiid off was minus-6.3 through Dec. 31. Since then, the Sixers are a plus-0.6 in that scenario.
But Philadelphia's ceiling depends entirely on its transcendent big man. With Embiid, the Sixers are an elite defense and a first-round upset threat against anyone. Big picture, they're a title contender down the line.
Without him, everything turns to ash.*
So he'd better stay healthy.
*This is an exaggeration, but only barely.
Bonus: Is Markelle Fultz broken or nah?
Is Elfrid Payton worth keeping?
It didn't cost much to get Payton from the Magic, mainly because Orlando decided it wasn't interested in retaining him—even with the leverage and control of restricted free agency this summer. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the 2014 lottery selection.
The Phoenix Suns desperately need a point guard, though, and now they've got the power of restricted rights over Payton and the added advantage of a free-agency landscape lacking big spenders. If Phoenix likes what it sees from Payton, it can keep him around on the cheap.
To entice the Suns, Payton will have to prove his career-best three-point conversion rate is real (and add some volume to it) while also being something other than one of the absolute worst backcourt defenders in the league.
That second part will be difficult on a Suns team committed to trotting out young players down the stretch, but you could also argue that arrangement should make it easier for Payton to stand out.
Portland Trail Blazers
Have we seen this before?
This is more of a macro question for the Portland Trail Blazers.
After starting the year with, for them, an oddly inverted "good defense, bad offense" profile, the Blazers have morphed back into their old selves. They're scoring at a top-10 rate since Jan. 1...and defending at a bottom-10 clip.
The problem with this return to form is we know exactly how good these familiar Blazers are: a little better than .500 with fringe first-round upset potential. And nothing more.
Portland's moves lately, generally designed to avoid the luxury tax, telegraph how intractable this roster construction is. There's a sense of stasis surrounding this team, and the best thing Portland could do down the stretch is prove it's somehow better or different than what we've seen over the past handful of seasons. A return to solid defense would be a good start.
Does anybody know what's going on here?
No other franchise could (allegedly) try to sneak a player into a trade package without telling the other party and then dump two recent first-round picks for nothing without getting absolutely pilloried for cartoonish mismanagement.
For the Sacramento Kings, the reaction is more like, "Yeah, that sounds about right."
Is there going to be a coherent plan down the stretch? Should we expect front-office changes (in addition to the one that already happened, a parting of ways with scouting direction Mike Bratz)? Who's even making decisions?
It's hard to run a good NBA organization. The Kings make it look harder than most.
San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich told reporters he'd be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returned this season, which is both stunning in its initial impact and yet also foreseeable given how long Leonard's curious absence has dragged on.
Pop's language didn't foreclose the possibility of a Leonard return, but in the now unlikely event we see last year's third-place finisher in the MVP vote, we have to assume it won't involve full-bore, unrestricted stretches of playing time. It also feels unreasonable to expect Leonard will contribute meaningfully in the postseason after such a long layoff.
We can't go so far as to worry about San Antonio missing the playoffs. The Spurs went into the break with a 30-20 record in games Leonard didn't play, so they figure to survive. But the season now takes on an almost pointless quality.
It'll be up to the Spurs to find meaning. And if this injury and its effect on the organization's relationship with its best player look like they'll have longer-term repercussions, it might be time to consider a way forward without Leonard.
Are they going to look down?
The Toronto Raptors are great.
They're one of two teams ranked among the league's top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, they're deep, they've revamped their style and they've been the most consistent East club all year, never losing more than two games in row and never finishing any 10-game stretch at worse than 5-5.
Toronto's history of playoff disappointments can't go unmentioned, though. The Raptors got rudely bounced from the last two postseasons by the Cavs. The two years before that featured first-round exits.
You know how Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff but only falls when he looks down and realizes he's supposed to fall? Are the Raptors, awesome all season, going to hit the playoffs and...look down?
I don't think so, but it's worth asking. A stone-cold, all business finish to the regular season could assuage that worry.
We have several questions, but one clear answer.
We're way past the point of asking whether the scorching, streaking Utah Jazz are going to make the playoffs. They're in. FiveThirtyEight.com gives them an 87 percent chance to make the postseason—higher than the Thunder, Spurs, Nuggets and Blazers.
Better to spend our efforts asking and answering tougher questions.
Could Joe Ingles hit 10 straight open threes while being gnawed on by piranhas?
Can head coach Quin Snyder force opponents to miss clean looks by glaring at them?
In light of these answers, are the Jazz a threat to finish in the West's top four?
Are the Wizards better without John Wall?
Man, it just feels icky to ask. But we have to.
Look at the numbers. No, not the ones that say over the full season that the Washington Wizards are 4.7 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the court. Look instead at Washington's 7-2 mark since Wall went down with knee surgery.
And then look at how the team's ball movement and assist percentage actually improve without the All-Star point guard on the floor.
There's something happening here. Even if there's plenty of data and history suggesting Wall's worth, we can't ignore this recent run. And we can't fail to consider the immense financial burden Wall's $207 million contract represents. There should be no questions, whispered or otherwise, about whether a player set to earn that much money is a help or hindrance.
If the Wizards keep playing as well as they did heading into the break, it'll actually be devastating. Because it'll mean they spent hundreds of millions on something they might not need.