Every NBA Team's Biggest Question Mark

mandela namaste@@mandiba13Contributor INovember 21, 2019

Every NBA Team's Biggest Question Mark

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    We're about a month into the 2019-20 NBA season, and the relative tiers of competition are slowly revealing themselves. There are the tankers, fringe playoff contenders, mid-tier playoff hopefuls and elites.

    Despite that stratified league structure, one thing unites all 30 teams: They all have flaws.

    Yes, some teams' flaws are fatal, while others will only matter at the very heights of the sport. But every club should try to spend the rest of its season addressing or overcoming these weaknesses, whether they're short-term or long-term worries.

    Let's take a look at each team's biggest question through one month of play.

Atlanta Hawks: How Long a Leash Do the Young Guys Get?

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    Despite their record, the Atlanta Hawks might be ready to win now due to the play of Trae Young. The second-year point guard is locked in, averaging 27.0 points and 8.7 assists with a 24.4 player efficiency rating (PER), which ranks 13th in the NBA. 

    At the risk of piling unnecessary pressure on young players, Young's success begs the question: How much longer can head coach Lloyd Pierce keep starting De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish? 

    Given Atlanta's rebuilding status, it makes sense to play the two first-round picks a lot. But Hunter and Reddish haven't just been bad; they've been atrocious. They're both shooting below 40 percent from the field. Reddish is even shooting an abysmal 27.0 percent from the field and 18.8 percent from three while averaging nearly two turnovers per game. 

    Obviously, they should play non-garbage-time minutes no matter what this year.

    But once John Collins returns from his 25-game suspension, Atlanta will have a ready-made starting five of Young, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre' Bembry, Jabari Parker and Collins. It could try to make the playoffs with that group unless Hunter and Reddish improve drastically. 

Boston Celtics: Is the Frontcourt Success Sustainable?

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    Even the most optimistic Celtics fans are likely thrilled by the team's hot start. 

    Sure, Kemba Walker is great, and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are much improved from last year. But the true surprise has been the success of the frontcourt. That was thought to be a major weakness heading into the season, but the Celtics are currently tied for first in net rating at the center position. 

    The big question for Boston is obvious: Can it continue to be so stout down low?

    Enes Kanter is a famously bad defender, Grant Williams and Robert Williams III are inexperienced, and Daniel Theis should be a backup. The Celtics are smart and probably realize Kanter's and Theis' stellar defensive ratings are likely to regress in due time, so it makes sense to start up the rumor mill.

    Rumors circulated this summer about a potential trade for Houston Rockets center Clint Capela, and a move of that caliber is exactly what the Celtics need. Right now, Boston is still slightly below the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers at the top of the East. But if it can preemptively address the giant question mark that is its center spot, then it'll be right in the thick of things. 

Brooklyn Nets: Can the Defense Coalesce?

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    It's been a bit of a rough start for the new-look Brooklyn Nets, as they've already given up over 110 points in 11 of 13 games. And for the "points allowed doesn't account for pace" crowd, only two Nets have individual defensive ratings below 105, and neither factors into the typical rotation.

    While Brooklyn has enough offensive firepower to eventually own a winning record and make the playoffs, the lack of defensive prowess is concerning. The Nets are on track for a bottom-half finish and would get destroyed by any of the top five teams in the Eastern Conference if the playoffs started tomorrow.

    In order to become a more serious playoff threat, the Nets' ostensibly good defenders—Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple and Jarrett Allen—have to preach effort and unit connectivity. 

    Thankfully for the Nets, they get a bit of help from the schedule-makers to close November, playing the Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers before Thanksgiving.

    If they're able to shut those teams down on offense, perhaps they'll be on the right track going forward. If not, then Brooklyn fans should start getting worried.

Charlotte Hornets: What’s Going on with the Frontcourt?

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    Another big surprise so far has been the sheer competence of the Charlotte Hornets. They're by no means a playoff team. But they're far from the disaster most projected them to be heading into the season. 

    The big stories so far have been the hot starts of Devonte' Graham and PJ Washington. But their success hides the fact that the Hornets' big men are getting bullied.

    Charlotte is last in rebound rate, and Washington has the best net rating among rotation big men at minus-7.7. That second stat is notable in and of itself because while the Kentucky alum has been good, he's still a rookie and should be outperformed by the likes of Marvin Williams, Miles Bridges and Cody Zeller.

    Bridges, in particular, has been quite disappointing, recording a team-worst 115.8 defensive rating and a 10.6 PER just months after he was vocally dissatisfied with his rookie performance. 

    Honestly, this isn't a big problem overall. Charlotte's veteran big men will mostly be gone next year, and the young ones are allotted plenty of room to make mistakes.

    But let's just check in from time to time this year to make sure Washington and Bridges are staying the course.

Chicago Bulls: Can They Finish Games as Well as They Start Them?

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    The playoff expectations set by Bulls head coach Jim Boylen before the season already feel a million miles away. 

    None of the Bulls' four wins are over expected playoff teams, and they've lost games to the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and an Indiana Pacers team lacking Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner.

    That brief summary failed to mention a 15-0 New York run in the last four minutes of the Knicks loss and a blown 19-point halftime lead to the Los Angeles Lakers at home. As if you needed more evidence of the Bulls' inability to close games, they rank 29th in fourth-quarter net rating this season. 

    The most frustrating part of Chicago's struggles is that the outline of a competent team is there.

    Zach LaVine continues to be a dependable (if sometimes selfish) lead scorer, Wendell Carter Jr. is showing significant signs of growth, and Coby White has already gone nuclear a few times. In addition, four of their 10 losses have been by six points or fewer, suggesting they have generally been competitive. 

    It's just figuring out a way to marshal all that potential into complete, four-quarter efforts that eludes the Bulls.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Can This Backcourt Be Fixed?

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    As it turns out, maybe it wasn't a good idea to pair two small, ball-dominant guards. 

    To the credit of first-year NBA head coach John Beilein, Cleveland has been way more interesting than anyone expected. Tristan Thompson is having a classic contract year, while Kevin Love looks as close to his Minnesota self as we've seen in a while. It's just this backcourt snafu that is messing up the Cavs' good start. 

    Cleveland ranks 29th in assist percentage and 26th in assist-to-turnover ratio. In addition, the Cavs' four main guards—Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Jordan Clarkson and Kevin Porter Jr.—are all score-first options, and only Sexton is proficient off the ball

    Sexton and Garland are both recent lottery picks, so unless the Cavs get floored by a trade proposal, they should give them a few years to figure each other out. But Clarkson is a free agent this summer, and Cleveland should think long and hard about moving him to at least partially de-clutter what is currently a confusing guard group.

Dallas Mavericks: Can Somebody Else Besides Luka Show Up Late?

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    Forget the future; Luka Doncic is the present of the NBA. He's putting up numbers matched only by Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook, and he is leading a top-three offense in just his second year. 

    What's even more remarkable is that his team is letting him down when it matters. 

    Dallas usually plays like an established playoff team but has been inexplicably terrible in clutch situations so far this season. Though the Mavericks are 5-5 in games that feature a five-point margin in the final five minutes, they rank just 22nd in clutch net rating.

    Only Seth Curry has a clutch offensive rating over 96; Luka himself is at an abysmal 88.8, but many of his teammates have been just as bad. Ostensible co-star Kristaps Porzingis has been completely lost in close games, shooting 15.4 percent from the field (not a typo), while role players such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Maxi Kleber continue to falter, as well. 

    It's unclear what exactly the problem is. But if Dallas wants to have any playoff success this year, it'll need to fix it. Thankfully, the Western Conference provides a gauntlet through which it'll be able to consistently test its postseason mettle.

Denver Nuggets: Will the Real Nikola Jokic Please Stand Up?

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    Who could have predicted Nikola Jokic would look so indifferent right after a brilliant 2018-19 campaign in which he finished fourth in the MVP voting?

    Last year's Jokic isn't here yet. His counting stats are down in pretty much every major category except for fouls.

    To be clear, the Joker has not been bad this year. He's just floating like he's waiting to exert his will on the game but has not yet chosen to do so. He might be dealing with an injury or could just be flat-out tired after playing straight through the summer with the Serbian national team. But either way, Jokic needs to elevate soon. 

    To the Nuggets' credit, they've managed some pretty impressive early-season wins over the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and a surprisingly feisty Phoenix Suns team despite their best player's relative inertia. But they know as well as we do that they don't stand a chance when it matters without peak Jokic.

    With Jokic as is, the Nuggets are a fun low seed in the West; with 2018-19 Jokic, they can win the Larry O'Brien Trophy. 

Detroit Pistons: Are They Really This Bad on Defense?

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    On paper, the Pistons don't have the makings of an elite defense. Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond are the only rotation players who can likely approach that level. But they should probably be better than they are right now, sitting above only the San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors in defensive rating.

    However, there's a case that Detroit has just been rather unlucky.

    Opponents are currently shooting 48.4 percent from the field against the Pistons, a mark that ranks 29th in the league. Now, Detroit hasn't played the most difficult schedule to date, but no team is shooting better than 47.9 percent during the 2019-20 season. Since the Pistons' average opponent is half a percentage point above that mark, there's a good chance they've fallen victim to bad luck.

    This matters even more because Detroit's offense has been far better than expected, and it's been so successful largely without Blake Griffin, who only recently returned to game action.

    If the Pistons defense can regress to the mean while the offense stays close to its present efficiency level, then they have a real shot at a playoff berth. Whether that's possible will be the story of Detroit's season.

Golden State Warriors: Can the Defense Be Anything Less Than Cataclysmic?

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    This is already a lost season for the Golden State Warriors. Even if Stephen Curry returns in the spring like he wants to, the West is too competitive and the Warriors' roster just too flat-out bad for a playoff berth to be realistic.

    After featuring the most dominant defense in the NBA for years, the Warriors lost many of their key players last offseason: Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies, Kevin Durant to the Brooklyn Nets and Klay Thompson to a torn ACL. Draymond Green is still around, but he's not nearly enough by himself.

    As such, the Warriors now have the second-worst defense in the league.

    There's room for improvement on that end. Kevon Looney is slated to take the court again at some point this year, while long-armed wings Glenn Robinson III and Eric Paschall could be good defenders.

    But in a conference as brutal as the West is this year, it might be hard to tell if the young Warriors are learning anything when they're getting pasted every night by much better teams.

Houston Rockets: Is the Shot Selection Still Good?

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    The Houston Rockets may have finally jumped the shark. 

    After three straight seasons of above-average three-point shooting, Houston has taken a downturn this year. It's currently 22nd in the league, making a mere 34.1 percent of its triples. That isn't a terrible number, especially when the Rockets shoot as much as they do. But considering their current personnel, it may be time to reconsider their longtime rigidity.

    Clint Capela doesn't shoot. Eric Gordon has been terrible and is currently injured. Russell Westbrook, despite his best efforts, still can't shoot, making just 22.7 percent of his three-pointers on 5.5 attempts per game. Throw in consistently inconsistent gunners such as Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore and the Rockets might have just three proficient shooters on the roster: PJ Tucker, Danuel House and James Harden

    Harden's start to the season is the best reason to maintain the status quo.

    He's averaging nearly 40 points per game despite subpar efficiency from the field, and it's only a matter of time before he goes on yet another prolonged hot streak. The Rockets also rank second in offensive rating.

    But as the playoffs grow closer and opponents zero in on pronounced weaknesses, head coach Mike D'Antoni might want to consider tweaking his offense just a bit.

Indiana Pacers: Can They Shoot More 3s?

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    It's hard to evaluate the Indiana Pacers as of yet. Not only is Victor Oladipo still recovering from a leg injury, but most of the rotation players have already missed time due to injuries of their own. 

    However, one obvious area of improvement, based on both statistical evidence and the roster, is three-point shooting. 

    Currently, the Pacers shoot fewer threes than any team in the NBA other than the San Antonio Spurs. However, they're actually decent from beyond the arc, ranking 17th at 34.3 percent. Players like Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren and Justin Holiday who are normally good shooters have been flat so far this season, so Indiana can get even better.

    The question is: Will they?

    Perhaps Oladipo's return will return the spacing to a normal level. But Warren has been a mid-range-heavy scorer for years, and Myles Turner still likes to operate out of the post despite being a career 36.8 percent three-point shooter. That makes for a clumsy fit with the similarly paint-oriented Domantas Sabonis. 

    In the pace-and-space era, is it still feasible to achieve postseason success without incessantly bombing away from three? The Pacers might be a good case study come April.

Los Angeles Clippers: Should They Upgrade the Point Guard Spot?

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    Despite Kawhi Leonard's marked improvement as a distributor, the Clippers have not moved the ball particularly well this year, ranking 25th in assist percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. Those numbers may have something to do with the early-season struggles of Patrick Beverley. 

    Somehow, Beverley, the starting point guard on an NBA team, ranks eighth on the Clippers in assist percentage (12.1 percent), and he's been distressingly bad as a scorer, shooting just 35.9 percent from the field and 18.9 percent from three. 

    Will Beverley's disappointing start affect the Clippers in any material way? Perhaps not. He still has a 7.5 net rating, in part due to his typically stellar defense.

    But if he continues to be such an offensive burden, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and the rest of the front office may need to consider upgrading the lead guard spot as the playoffs get closer.

Los Angeles Lakers: Can They Make More 3s?

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    Through a month of basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers have been arguably the best team in the NBA. What's most interesting about this unit, though, is that the offense is not even close to its peak. 

    Yes, the Lakers rank 10th in offensive rating, but they are only making 34.2 percent of their threes on nearly 30 attempts per game.

    Given its personnel, L.A. should not expect to be an elite shooting team. But Anthony Davis is bound to hit more than 29.7 percent of his attempts from range. and the same goes for role players such as Avery Bradley and Troy Daniels, both of whom are connecting on fewer than 30 percent of their threes. 

    The Lakers are already scary. Both LeBron James and Anthony Davis rank in the top five of Basketball Reference's MVP Predictor, and the former leads the league in assists per game by nearly two dimes.

    Imagine what they'll look like when the offense really gets rolling.

Memphis Grizzlies: So...about This Defense?

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    Young teams are never expected to have good defenses. But this Grizzlies team could have been different.

    Mixing youngsters such as Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke with heady veterans like Kyle Anderson, Solomon Hill and Jae Crowder could have led to a scrappy, better-than-expected two-way unit. 

    Narrator voice: It hasn't.

    Memphis hasn't been apocalyptically bad on defense the way the Golden State Warriors or Washington Wizards have, but the way in which they've been bad and the specific players involved in the struggles are worrisome.

    Jackson's performance, in particular, is concerning. After he made the All-Rookie first team last season and averaged 1.4 blocks per game, expectations were very high for the 2018 fourth overall pick. Instead, he's got the worst defensive rating of any rotation player on the Grizzlies and a measly 10.1 total rebound percentage

    Jackson and his young teammates have time to find their way in the league. Morant has actually been better than expected on defense, and Clarke is a tremendous forward defender when given such assignments. But a regression as drastic as Jackson's is alarming and should be monitored going forward. 

Miami Heat: Can They Take Better Care of the Ball?

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    The Miami Heat are currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference and own the fourth-best net rating in the NBA.

    Congrats to head coach Erik Spoelstra. He's done it again.

    Despite a relatively anonymous roster, the Heat are likely to stay in the playoff hunt, so let's take them seriously and examine a glaring flaw in their early-season success: turnovers. Miami currently ranks last in the league in turnover percentage, losing the ball on 18.6 percent of its possessions. In a related story, the Heat are 27th in opponent points off turnovers at 20.3 points per game. 

    In theory, these turnovers are a byproduct of a positive development, which is Miami's ball movement. It's 10th in passes made per game, second in potential assists and third in assist points created.

    But if Miami wants to advance far in the playoffs, it'll have to go up against teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, four squads that boast fearsome defenses and will feast upon errant passes. 

    The Heat have plenty of time to clean up their ball-handling. If they do, they could be quite entertaining in the postseason.

Milwaukee Bucks: Are the Role Players Good Enough?

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    Somehow, Giannis Antetokounmpo has gotten even better this season. 

    His stat line of 30.3 points, 14.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game is unprecedented in NBA history, and at long last, his fatal flaw seems to have been sufficiently addressed. He's shooting 32.1 percent from three on the highest volume of his career and making 37.2 percent of his pull-up threes, putting him ahead of notable sharpshooters like James Harden, Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell. 

    It's too bad Giannis is doing this despite his teammates, not because of them. 

    Some of Milwaukee's role players have been good. Before getting injured, Khris Middleton was his usual self, and Eric Bledsoe and George Hill have each been stellar thus far. But key role players such as Brook Lopez, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews have all struggled in one way or another. None have average player efficiency ratings, and all can easily be targeted on defense. 

    The Bucks have a relatively easy upcoming schedule, playing the Portland Trail Blazers, Detroit Pistons (twice), Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks within the next two weeks. If Giannis' supporting cast doesn't have a few breakout moments at some point during that stretch, then Bucks fans should start getting concerned. 

Minnesota Timberwolves: Can They Keep This Up?

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    The Timberwolves have been one of the most encouraging stories of this young season. Not only has Karl-Anthony Towns leveled up again and reclaimed his place among the league's most dominant big man, but it also looks like Andrew Wiggins might finally have broken through.

    Before leaving the team due to a death in the family, the former Rookie of the Year was rampaging through opponents, averaging 25.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists with positive efficiency numbers. It's been thrilling to watch.

    For now, let's sideline questions about the sustainability of Wiggins' individual play and wonder about Minnesota's overall performance thus far.

    The Wolves are currently playing at the third-fastest pace and launching the fourth-most threes in the league. However, despite the aforementioned brilliance from Towns and Wiggins, Minnesota has generally struggled from beyond the arc, making just 31.3 percent of those threes, which ranks 28th.

    A fast pace, overeager shooters and a league-average turnover rate is the perfect recipe for a lottery team in this day and age. The Wolves are trying to adapt to the changing league around them; they just lack the personnel to do so successfully. 

New Orleans Pelicans: What’s Up with This Bad Injury Luck?

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    For years, the New Orleans Pelicans have dealt with a litany of injuries.

    Anthony Davis was famously brittle early in his career, while Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson were both injury-prone in the Big Easy. The Pelicans finally addressed their 800-pound gorilla this summer, hiring accomplished head trainer Aaron Nelson away from the Phoenix Suns to keep their young team healthy.

    As it turns out, the incumbent training staff may not have been the only problem.

    Only two Pelicans have played in all 14 games this season: Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kenrich Williams. Everyone else has fallen victim to a malady of some sort, and a staggering seven players are currently sidelined. Among them are future megastar Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Derrick Favors and Josh Hart. 

    Did Chris Paul curse the Pelicans on his way out the door eight years ago? Why does this keep happening?

    Maybe Williamson, Ball and Favors are injury-prone players. Nevertheless, this current situation is scary. The young Pelicans are bursting at the seams with future potential, and it would be a shame to see them hindered by continual health mishaps.

New York Knicks: All of It.

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    Trying to identify the Knicks' biggest question is like picking the best scene from your favorite movie. Where do you even start?

    Every basketball fan knew this campaign was going to be a disaster from the moment the Knicks signed four power forwards in one offseason. And you know what? Everyone has been dead on. 

    New York ranks 27th in assist percentage, 28th in three-point shooting and 27th in secondary assists. In summary, there's absolutely no offensive flow. 

    The defense isn't any better. Only two rotation players have a defensive rating below 105, and neither of them is block fiend Mitchell Robinson.

    For the second straight year, Robinson has been a bright spot in a sea of muck. This year, he's shooting 71.0 percent from the field and blocking 1.9 shots per game, all while posting a staggering 31.0 PER. Rookie RJ Barrett has had moments of competence, as well, and the fans' devotion to Frank Ntilikina is contagious.

    But overall, the Knicks remain one of the least successful organizations in professional sports. We're nearing the point at which their supporters should receive medals for decades of loyalty and perseverance.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Is the Frontcourt Hopeless?

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    For years, the Thunder staked their reputation on being a huge, swarming team that would overwhelm offenses with its sheer bulk and length. After this summer's unprecedented reset, that is now far from the case.

    On paper, Oklahoma City's starting frontcourt of Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams looks respectable enough. Both are above-average NBA starters. But dig a little deeper and you might be horrified by what you find.

    The Thunder rank 29th in rebound percentage and 27th in center offensive rating. Their backup big men are mostly anonymous: Nerlens Noel, Darius Bazley, Mike Muscala and Justin Patton. That quartet doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

    Oh, but it gets worse.

    Gallinari is an obvious candidate to be moved, and in the deadest trade market in years, fringe playoff teams like the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons would jump at the chance to acquire someone like him. Moving him would likely make Oklahoma City's frontcourt even worse than it already is (at least in the short term). 

    For a team that's been surprisingly competitive, the Thunder have a pretty big roster hole. At least they can open their bottomless draft-pick cache and figure out a way to address it.

Orlando Magic: Can the Offense Be Professional?

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    The Magic are currently 26th in offensive rating, but they feel like they should be ranked 56th

    It's beginning to seem like last season was an aberration brought on by a season-long out-of-body experience from Nikola Vucevic. All the spacing concerns that have plagued this team for years have come roaring back in the early going.

    Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac continue to play a ton of minutes at small forward, which forces them to shoot more threes than they should, while point guard D.J. Augustin is playing 25.3 minutes per game despite being a clear downgrade from Markelle Fultz. Al-Farouq Aminu seemed like a questionable signing this summer, and his abysmal shooting offsets his stellar defense enough for that to still be the case.

    The Magic have played four good offensive games in the last two weeks. However, three of those games were against Memphis, San Antonio and Washington, none of whom have good defenses, and the fourth was against a Joel Embiid-less Sixers team.

    Let's wait a bit longer before claiming this recent uptick is sustainable. 

Philadelphia 76ers: Who’s the Primary Shot-Creator?

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    Despite the preseason hype around this Sixers team, there were always questions about Jimmy Butler's replacement. Yes, he was sufficiently supplanted in the starting lineup, but whether Philly could replicate Butler's three-level scoring prowess was up for debate.

    Early on, the Sixers have yet to answer those questions.

    None of the five starters are shooting below 42 percent from the field, and Ben Simmons is the worst scorer of the bunch at 13.7 points per game. But the Sixers are 19th in offensive rating and Joel Embiid has been the most accurate three-point shooter in the starting five.

    If Embiid continues to shoot well from deep, then this may not be an issue. But history suggests regression will come for him eventually, and then what?

    Philly's success may ultimately come down to Simmons' shot. If his first career three-pointer on Wednesday night is a relative sign of things to come, this team's sky-high potential will be within reach. But if he continues to clog the paint, making the Finals may be an uphill battle for the Sixers.

Phoenix Suns: Can They Stop Fouling so Much?

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    Congratulations, Suns fans! You appear to be out of the tanking wilderness, and a low playoff seed is within your sights.

    Let's focus on sanding off the rough edges now. 

    Phoenix still fouls far too much. The Suns rank 29th with 24.0 fouls per game, and opponents make 20.7 free throws per game against them, tied for fifth-most in the NBA. 

    Phoenix's top three foul committers are three of its best playersAron Baynes, Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr. That wouldn't be a problem on a deep team, but the Suns' bench has a negative net ratingand only Cameron Johnson has an above-average PER among regular bench contributors.

    When one of Phoenix's starters has to sit for a while due to foul trouble, it puts the team at a deficit. 

    When Deandre Ayton returns from his suspension and pushes Baynes back to the second unit, this problem may subside naturally. But if that doesn't happen, the Suns will have to focus on either not fouling so much or hope for drastic improvement from the bench.

Portland Trail Blazers: Will Frontcourt Issues Be Their Undoing?

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    Injuries made the Portland Trail Blazers' frontcourt a question coming into the season, and it's only gotten worse since.

    Zach Collins suffered a shoulder injury that is expected to sideline him until March, if not longer. On Wednesday, they released 39-year-old big man Pau Gasol, whose rehabilitation from a left foot injury was going slower than expected. They were so desperate for frontcourt help that they signed Carmelo Anthony, who hadn't played competitive basketball in a year and struggled during his short stint with the Rockets last season.

    Meanwhile, Portland's estimable backcourt is playing as well as it ever has. Damian Lillard is averaging a career-high 28.6 points on 45.2 percent shooting, and CJ McCollum remains a deadly second option. Sixth man Anfernee Simons has been a pleasant surprise in his second season as well, recording an impressive 53.2 effective field-goal percentage. 

    Despite Lillard's scorching start to the season, Portland is 5-10 and has games against the Bucks, Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Suns and Timberwolves before Christmas. Jusuf Nurkic's eventual return was supposed to help the Blazers bolster their playoff seeding, but it looks they might need him to just make it to late April.

Sacramento Kings: Can They Liven Up the Offense?

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    Since franchise point guard De'Aaron Fox went down with an ankle sprain that is expected to sideline him for at least a month, the Sacramento Kings have won three of their last four games, including two big wins over the Celtics and Suns. What gives? 

    No, veteran point guard Cory Joseph is not better than Fox, despite what both Sacramento's record and their respective net ratings might suggest. In fact, most of the problems that existed during Fox's nine games still plague this Kings team, specifically in the half court.

    Sacramento currently ranks 28th in passes made per game and is near the bottom in isolations, pick-and-rolls, cuts, and handoffs. In Fox's stead, the Kings have been kept afloat by the two-man show of Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, the latter of whom has been particularly hot to start the season. But neither of them is a primary shot creator, and depending on Joseph to run an offense for long seems like a bad idea. 

    Fox is supposed to be re-evaluated in about two to three weeks, though he will likely need longer to fully recover. His return can't come soon enough. 

San Antonio Spurs: Is This Finally It?

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    People have been crowing about the end of the Spurs dynasty for almost a full decade. And time and again, San Antonio proves us wrong. 

    At the risk of once again sounding foolish, we must ask: Is this the end of its 22-year playoff streak?

    The Spurs are a few games back of the eighth seed. All of their wins and several of their losses have come against teams that appear headed to miss the playoffs. Perhaps most damning, the Spurs have the fourth-worst defense in the league by net rating. After years of coaching some of the best defenders in NBA history like David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen and Kawhi Leonard, this must frustrate coach Gregg Popovich. 

    San Antonio is also too deep for its own good. The Spurs' ostensible backcourt of the future, Derrick White and Dejounte Murray, has played a grand total of seven minutes together, and summer-league standout Lonnie Walker IV has only played 40 minutes in eight games. 

    There's no specific question hanging over the Spurs. They should just consider moving on from impending free agents DeMar DeRozan (likely to decline player option) and LaMarcus Aldridge to give their exciting young players the playing time they deserve.

Toronto Raptors: Can the Team Hold Up Through the Season?

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Despite losing five key players from their title-winning squad, the Raptors are still competitive. Pascal Siakam is now a full-fledged All-Star and fringe MVP candidate, while Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby have shown considerable improvement as well. But are they all doing a bit too much?

    VanVleet, Siakam and Kyle Lowry are all in the top seven in minutes per game, and all three are playing at least 36 minutes a night, though Lowry has been hurt for the last week-plus. In the age of load management, using one player so much is cause for consternation, let alone three.

    However, it all makes a bit more sense when looking at Toronto's bench. Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka are quality veterans, but Patrick McCaw's championship streak is just a neat coincidence, Terence Davis and Matt Thomas are undrafted rookies, and coach Nick Nurse called out Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson in the preseason for playing bad defense.

    Most of these anonymous bench players have been positive contributors thus far, particularly Davis and Hollis-Jefferson. But when the starters either get tired or inevitably start having their minutes scaled back, will the youngsters be up to the task? We'll see. 

Utah Jazz: Where’s the Ball Movement?

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    In comparison to last season, the Jazz have more offensive threats alongside Donovan Mitchell as well as more potential playmakers. From Mike Conley to Mitchell to Joe Ingles to Dante Exum and Emmanuel Mudiay, Utah has numerous players to run its offense through.

    But that hasn't led to more ball movement. 

    Utah ranks 28th in assists per game, 27th in assist percentage and 29th in potential assists. To top it off, this lack of movement doesn't even result in an efficient offense—the Jazz are in the 35th percentile in isolation scoring and rank 25th in total offensive rating

    Much of this lethargy can be attributed to a learning curve for Bojan Bogdanovic and particularly Conley, who's had a rough start in his new digs. Plus, the Jazz have gotten along just fine thanks to a top-flight defense. But if Utah is struggling this much in the regular season, imagine how tough scoring is going to be against the Lakers or Clippers, teams with frightening defenses. 

    The Jazz had expectations to contend going into the season, and despite their record, they're nowhere close to playing at a high enough level yet. 

Washington Wizards: Do They Need to Score 120 Points Every Night to Have a Shot?

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    The top five offenses in the league are mostly unsurprising. Houston, Dallas, Boston and San Antonio (OK, that one is surprising) are four of them. The Washington Wizards are the fifth. 

    Despite a lack of talent, the Wizards have been exciting and efficient. Led by perennial All-Star Bradley Beal, rookie Rui Hachimura and a seemingly resurgent Isaiah Thomas, Washington has scored over 120 points in half its games and taken top-tier teams like the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics down to the wire. 

    But the Wizards are worse on defense than they are good on offense. A staggering five Wizards have defensive ratings worse than 115 points per 100 possessions, and they've allowed over 110 points to the anemic offenses of the Cavaliers, Magic and Pacers, who were missing Victor Oladipo, Jeremy Lamb and Myles Turner. 

    Now that we know the offense has life, the Wizards are way more interesting. If they could be anything less than an out-and-out catastrophe on defense, then perhaps the eighth seed is within reach. 

         

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, current heading into Wednesday's games and courtesy of ESPN.com, Basketball Reference and NBA.com