Every NBA Team's Biggest Question Entering the New Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 23, 2020

Every NBA Team's Biggest Question Entering the New Season

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    You've got questions about the 2020-21 NBA season, and we've got answers.

    No, wait, that's not right. Better to say we also have questions. Thirty of them, to be exact. One for every team at the dawn of a new campaign.

    It may only feel like a few weeks since the Los Angeles Lakers secured the 2019-20 title, which is because it just happened in October. Despite the quick turnaround, the season ahead feels unusually fresh. Every club has a key uncertainty—ranging from a particular rotation spot to the existential big-picture stuff—that will define its campaign.

    Consider this a final check-in on each team's major unknown before the season begins Tuesday.   

Atlanta Hawks: Is the Defense Playoff-Worthy?

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last year, Trae Young's time on the bench coincided with a catastrophic dive in offensive efficiency. New additions Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari will assure the Atlanta Hawks can still score whenever Young leaves the court, solving one critical issue.

    Another remains.

    Even if the Hawks vault into the top five in scoring, it might not be enough to get them into the playoffs if they rank 28th in defensive efficiency again.

    Fortunately, free-agent signee Kris Dunn is here to help.

    One of the league's premier perimeter harassers, Dunn led all qualified players in deflection and steal rate last season. Though he entered the NBA as a high-lottery point guard prospect, Dunn struggled to fulfill that role. His lack of shooting makes him a minus on offense, but he's compensated by becoming one of the NBA's best stoppers against both backcourt positions and even small forwards.

    Whether playing with Young or handling second-unit duties while Bogdanovic runs the offense, Dunn will check every team's most dangerous wing threat and wreak havoc in passing lanes.

    Inside, Clint Capela's return from his foot injury should give the Hawks respectable rim protection and defensive rebounding. There weren't many positions in the league less productive than Atlanta's centers in 2019-20, so even if Capela underperforms, he'll still be an upgrade.

    The Hawks don't need a top-flight defense to realize their playoff dreams, but they have to at least approach the middle of the pack.      

Boston Celtics: What Can Kemba Walker Give Them?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Gordon Hayward's departure leaves a void on the wing, but few teams are better equipped to lose a key player at that position than the Boston Celtics, who can still turn to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart for stops and shot creation.

    In the unlikely event those three can't pick up the slack, the $28.5 million trade exception Boston secured in the Hayward sign-and-trade could bring more help aboard.

    Kemba Walker's status is the larger issue.

    Following a stem cell injection in his left knee, Walker won't even complete his 12-week strengthening program until early January—at which point he could begin ramping up for a return to game action. That's if his rehab progresses on schedule. If the 30-year-old vet hits any setbacks with the knee that tanked his second half and bubble performance last year, Walker could easily lose as much as half the season.

    And who knows what he'll look like whenever he makes it back onto the floor?

    It may seem like a luxury to have an ace pick-and-roll point guard on a roster that already features Tatum as a top option, but Boston's exit in the Eastern Conference Finals proved that, for a team with its lofty goals, a player like Walker is actually a necessity.    

Brooklyn Nets: Is Kevin Durant Still Kevin Durant?

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    From new head coach Steve Nash's lack of experience to galaxy-brained chess enthusiast Kyrie Irving's health, the Brooklyn Nets feature the league's most consequential collection of unknowns.

    None of them loom larger than Kevin Durant, who'll return to the floor after a year-and-a-half away rehabilitating a torn Achilles.

    Early reports are promising.

    A source who saw KD play in a Los Angeles pickup game told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix: "He didn't look like Kevin Durant after an Achilles injury. He looked like Kevin Durant. He was all the way back."

    Achilles tears still carry a career-ending (or at least severely career-altering) stigma. But Durant, exceptional throughout his career in so many regards, seems like a good bet to beat the odds. Given his length, touch and skill, KD could lose a step or two and still be effective. If he returns with undiminished athleticism, there's no reason he won't quickly reassume his status as one of the two or three best players in the world.

    If the Nets get that version of Durant, they're a top-tier title threat and should finish with one of the best offenses in the league. If they get something less than that, all of those other uncertainties take on more importance, and the team won't so easily withstand Irving's possible health woes or Nash's coaching hiccups.

    KD will determine where Brooklyn's season lands on what might be the widest spectrum of potential outcomes in the NBA.            

Charlotte Hornets: Can LaMelo Ball Shoot?

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    It took just a few preseason moments for LaMelo Ball to validate the hype around his court sense and passing flair. Whether purposely tipping a rebound to teammates to trigger a fast break or, incredibly, leading a lane-filler to a layup with an on-the-money behind-the-back dime, there is no doubt about Ball's basketball intuition and feel.

    He's going to be one of the five best passers in the league before the year is out—if he's not already there.

    Ball was also bucketless in his preseason debut, underscoring concerns about his scoring touch and perimeter shot. Though he'll surely run off a hot streak or two, Ball's status in the league—superstar or critically flawed fringe starter—depends on his jumper.

    It's impossible to overstate the importance of a threatening shot for a primary ball-handler. A player with Ball's offensive skill and size—the 6'7", 194-pound guard doesn't look physically overmatched on an NBA floor—could wreak havoc if defenders had to play him honestly. But if he can't draw opponents out with, say, a 36 percent hit rate from deep, it'll blunt his other abilities and ultimately lower his ceiling.      

Chicago Bulls: Are Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Keepers?

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    There's nothing worse than having to scrap the construction process on a rebuild, but that may be what lies ahead for the Chicago Bulls if Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., back-to-back lottery picks in 2017 and 2018, respectively, don't use the 2020-21 season to show they're worthy cornerstones.

    Some amount of blame for the duo's stalled development resides with deposed coach Jim Boylen, who took over for Fred Hoiberg and ran the team with growth-stunting militarism. His hyperaggressive defensive schemes strained both bigs beyond their capabilities.

    Markkanen hit just 34.4 percent of his deep attempts last year, which wasn't good enough to warp defenses. A player who theoretically provides most of his value through spacing has yet to rank above the 36th percentile in points per shot attempt during his three-year career. Meanwhile, questions remain unanswered about his ability to survive at the 4 so that he and Carter can play together.

    Don't forget about the injuries. Carter logged 44 games as a rookie and 43 last season. Markkanen averaged 51 games played over his last two years after seeing action in 68 contests in 2017-18.

    Despite being deployed suboptimally in 2019-20, Markkanen and Carter helped the Bulls to a respectable minus-0.5 net rating in their 856 shared minutes. That's significantly better than Chicago's overall figure of minus-3.1. Add in their ages—Markkanen is 23, while Carter is still just 21—and there are more reasons to believe the Bulls already have their frontcourt of the future.

    This is a prove-it year nonetheless. Decision time approaches. After failing to reach an extension agreement before the season, Markkanen will hit restricted free agency after the 2020-21 season. Carter could be in the same boat a year later.      

    If those two meet their considerable potential under new head coach Billy Donovan, the Bulls will be on the way up. If they struggle again, Chicago will be in a Penrose stairs situation, climbing inexorably to nowhere.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Can They Get Anything for the Vets?

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    It's a lot less fun to take a transactional angle than it is to focus on player development, rotations or an organization's collection of lottery-delivered talent. This could have been about Collin Sexton's attempts to learn how to pass and/or defend in his upcoming third season.

    But the biggest question facing the Cleveland Cavaliers has to center on their efforts to turn their handful of veterans into roster-building assets.

    Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, JaVale McGee and Larry Nance Jr. should all spend the season on the trade block, though the Cavs should try to move the Drummond-Love-McGee trio first. Cleveland must exhaust every option to accumulate draft capital by moving on from established bigs who have no place in the organization's future.

    Drummond is an old-school center on an expiring $28.8 million salary. Love's defense is now bad enough to cancel out the spacing and passing he provides on the other end, and he's due $91.5 million over the next three years. Those two are negative assets.

    McGee, making $4.2 million, and Nance, with $32 million left on a team-friendly deal that declines in annual value over the next three years, should be easier to offload.

    It's probably going to be a slow road to respectability either way, but the Cavs can accelerate the journey if they manage to convert their vets into picks or young players.      

Dallas Mavericks: Is This a Top-10 Defense?

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Luka Doncic will head into the season as the MVP favorite, and, in related news, the Dallas Mavericks will again sit somewhere near the top of the league in scoring efficiency. All Doncic did last year was captain the Mavs to the highest offensive rating ever recorded.

    At 20.

    The offseason focus was on the other end, as the Mavs essentially replaced Seth Curry with Josh Richardson, a move that'll give them a second versatile perimeter defender alongside Dorian Finney-Smith.

    First-round pick Josh Green is another defense-first addition, though it's hard to be confident a rookie will make a significant difference. The same skepticism should apply to Tyrell Terry, whose deadeye shooting at Stanford makes him feel a lot like a Curry replacement.

    Dallas ranked 18th in defensive efficiency last year, with only the Portland Trail Blazers grading out worse among playoff participants. The Mavericks don't need an elite defense, but their contender status depends on approaching the top 10. Richardson won't get them there on his own; Doncic will have to be better, and Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber will have to continue doing some heavy lifting.

    Don't worry about the Mavs' rotten clutch performance last year, except insofar as it might highlight Doncic's heavy burden and conditioning. Those small-sample issues don't tend to carry over year to year. It shouldn't surprise anyone if Dallas is the best clutch performer this season.

    Everything comes down to the defense. If the Mavericks have enough, they can make a deep run in Doncic's age-21 season.     

Denver Nuggets: What Do We Make of Those 3-1 Comebacks?

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    This question flips the focus onto us observers as we try to process a Denver Nuggets team that reached the Western Conference Finals by overcoming 3-1 deficits in the first and second rounds of last season's playoffs.

    Several conventional questions are important to Denver's upcoming season. Is Michael Porter Jr. ready to make a leap? Can Gary Harris stay healthy? Is there enough wing defense after the losses of Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig? Will we see "Playoff Jamal Murray" in the regular season?

    But it's hard to know how much the answers to those questions matter if we're not sure what our baseline expectations for the Nuggets should be. Are they a true conference finalist, or should we view them as a team that was a Mike Conley rim-out away from first-round elimination?

    And then, what matters more? Overcoming those 3-1 deficits, or falling into 3-1 holes in the first place?

    You'll be on solid ground predicting Denver to finish the regular season among the West's top four; it's been in the top three two years running. But the team's postseason fate is much harder to determine because we can't be sure what last year's deep run meant.        

Detroit Pistons: Is Killian Hayes the Best Prospect Picked in 2020?

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Alternate question in light of an inexplicable offseason that included overpaying Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant, acquiring players for the purpose of stretching their salaries and letting Christian Wood walk: Did someone hold the Detroit Pistons' front office hostage and force it to make these decisions, or did everything this past offseason happen on purpose?

    That's rhetorical, and we'll never know for sure. So we'll go with Killian Hayes instead.

    Hayes sat atop one notable draft board and clocked in at No. 2 on our own Jonathan Wasserman's. So it wouldn't knock anyone's socks off if he wound up being the best player in the 2020 class. He came off the board seventh, though, which means we know a minimum of six NBA teams had their doubts on that front.

    The Pistons need Hayes to meet his rosiest predraft projections because they have virtually no other sources of hope and no alternative paths out of the cellar.

    Early signs suggest Hayes will excel as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, basically the threshold requirement for a good NBA point guard. It remains to be seen whether he can score or defend consistently. But it helps that he's already been handed the starting gig, and Derrick Rose has embraced the mentor's role.

    It shouldn't take long to determine whether the Pistons' most important player—Blake Griffin is their best; Hayes matters most in the big picture—will sink or swim. The franchise's future hangs in the balance.   

Golden State Warriors: How Do They Score When Steph Sits?

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    These Golden State Warriors are different.

    Preseason flashes of intense defense, high activity, length and athleticism evince a franchise that understands it's no longer playing with a stacked deck. A 15-50 season drove home the point: Coasting won't work anymore. The Warriors aren't good enough for that.

    So they're going to scrap, and a top-10 defense feels likely for a younger, rangier, hungrier Dubs team than we've seen in a while. These guys are going to guard.

    The offense should be fine as long as Stephen Curry is on the floor. Though he'll be 33 in March, Steph remains a singular force on and off the ball. The problems will arise when he hits the bench—something that should happen often. Curry missed all but five games last season and averaged 22 on the shelf in the two prior years. He's also played more than 34 minutes per game in just one of the last six seasons.

    Brad Wanamaker is solid—a cagey defender and game manager on offense. But the Warriors' new backup point guard isn't a shot-creator. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Wiggins are dependent scorers, defenses rejoice when Draymond Green shoots and rookie James Wiseman is as inexperienced as they come.

    It's a good thing Golden State's defense has potential. The Warriors will have to define themselves on that end, especially when Curry rests and the scoring gets scarce.    

Houston Rockets: What Will They Get for James Harden?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It'd be nice to pretend John Wall's health, Christian Wood's first season with real expectations or Eric Gordon's wing defense actually mattered. But there's no more significant question in the league—forget the Houston Rockets—than what's going to happen with James Harden.

    The 2018 MVP and three-time scoring champ still wants out, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, and the suitors are limited.

    The Philadelphia 76ers might eventually bend on a Ben Simmons trade, and the Brooklyn Nets could involve a third team to get the Rockets the young cornerstone they covet. But who knows?

    We'll have a series of new questions depending on the return Houston ultimately gets for its disgruntled superstar. Until a deal gets done, there's no use pretending anything else matters.

Indiana Pacers: New Offense, Who Dis?

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    The Indiana Pacers went 45-28 last season, despite a shot profile that might have convinced you, Hoosiers-style, that the three-point line didn't yet exist. Indy ranked 19th in offensive efficiency, largely because it shot the second-most mid-rangers in the league.

    As NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted, the Pacers' first preseason game under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren featured a refreshingly modern change. The mid-range shots all but disappeared.

    Add to that a series of slick sets and principles drawn straight from Bjorkgren's time with the Toronto Raptors, much of which Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper expertly highlighted, and the Pacers' attack appears transformed.

    This is good news!

    Of course, ideological overhauls and updated schemes take time to implement. A blink-and-you'll-miss-it preseason won't make the work any easier to complete. But if Indiana really has turned over a new leaf (no TJ Leaf departure jokes; we're better than that), this team, which should be dangerous on defense again, could really make some noise*.

    *If Victor Oladipo is healthy, and TJ Warren's plantar fasciitis clears up, and the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis duo works, and...you get the idea.

Los Angeles Clippers: So...Everybody Happy Now?

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    It was never a question of talent for the Los Angeles Clippers.

    Deep, versatile and led by a pair of stars at the all-important wing position in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clips were a logical title pick last year.

    A regular season lacking urgency gave way to a playoff collapse, and then came reports of locker room rifts, superstar pampering and gripes about coaching.

    Now, with a new head coach in Tyronn Lue and a fat extension in place for George, Los Angeles will see if last year's wounds can heal.

    Serge Ibaka gives the Clips an obvious closer at the 5, and Luke Kennard has a chance to fill the secondary playmaking void. Montrezl Harrell is gone, but that might help with chemistry, and he wasn't going to close meaningful games anyway.

    Just like last year, the Clippers' talent is not the issue. If they can learn from their failures and treat the regular season like something more than a half-speed walkthrough, they'll be on the right track. Ultimately, a championship is realistic—if the Clippers care enough about the little things (and about each other).

Los Angeles Lakers: Will LeBron Finally Fall Off?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    You have to keep asking the question until it finally happens, even if LeBron James' ongoing dismissal of the aging process stretches beyond mythic levels.

    Last year, James (36 in late December) added another 3,087 combined minutes to an already massive career total. He's now eighth all time in regular-season minutes. He was first in postseason minutes prior to the 2020 playoffs. The 762 he added only swelled his lead.

    To date, James has shown only the faintest signs of decline. His steal rate is on a three-year downward trend, bottoming out at 1.6 percent last season, tied for the lowest of his career. He's also become an increasingly perimeter-oriented offensive player, as demonstrated by 2019-20's career-high 32.6 percent three-point attempt rate and his lowest-ever free-throw rate. Both aligned with the eye test, which revealed, as expected from a player James' age, slightly diminishing athleticism.

    LeBron, because he's LeBron, compensated. He led the league with 10.2 assists per game and saved his best for last, winning his fourth Finals MVP.

    James was the greatest young player we've ever seen, amassing more win shares through his age-25 season than anyone in history. It seems a safe bet that his intellect and physical conditioning will also make him perhaps the greatest "old" player of all time.

    But there's that word: time. Nobody has an infinite supply of it, not even James.

    If he's 90 percent of the player he was last season, the Los Angeles Lakers belong right back atop the list of championship favorites. But if we finally see more conspicuous indicators of age, or if James wears down after an exceptionally short offseason, L.A. slides back into a pack of a half-dozen hopefuls with a roughly equal shot at a ring.

Memphis Grizzlies: Is There Enough Shooting?

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Jaren Jackson Jr. shot 39.4 percent on 6.5 long-range tries per game last year, and the Memphis Grizzlies still ranked just 23rd in three-point percentage and 24th in attempts per game. With his return date uncertain following a torn meniscus suffered in the bubble, Jackson leaves a void the Grizzlies will struggle to fill.

    The trickle-down effect of poor spacing will constrain Ja Morant's game, clogging driving lanes and allowing extra defenders to await him at the rim.

    If Jackson misses an extended chunk of the season or isn't quite as deadly from deep when he returns, the Grizzlies will have a hard time scoring. Grayson Allen and rookie Desmond Bane may be the team's top perimeter shooters, but even if both can stripe it regularly, neither's spacing will be as valuable as Jackson's.

    Stretch from the center spot is more valuable than it is anywhere else.

    The Grizz are in a mix of teams in the 7-10 range of the West playoff picture, but they could fall out of that group entirely if they can't manufacture some spacing.

Miami Heat: What's Plan B?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat telegraphed their intentions this past offseason, prioritizing 2021 cap flexibility so nakedly that there could be no doubt about their plans. They were positioning themselves to snag a max player in 2021 free agency, with Giannis Antetokounmpo standing out as the obvious prime target.

    Now that Giannis is off the board, what will the Heat do with all those guys they signed to deals featuring team options for 2021-22?

    Do they keep Goran Dragic, Meyers Leonard, Avery Bradley and Andre Iguodala and then cut them loose ahead of a big signing next summer? Do they package a couple of them up with Tyler Herro for a superstar trade?

    Two things about the Heat: They're ambitious, and they're unpredictable. That only adds further intrigue to their current situation. With them, nothing seems too bold.

    All this flexibility is a positive, even if the Heat may have only wanted to put it to use in a very specific way, for Giannis.

    Mark Miami down as one of the teams most likely to reinvent itself during the year. With several Plan B options possible, the Heat's season will pivot on which fallback option they choose.

Milwaukee Bucks: Can They Adapt?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Giannis Antetokounmpo put the league's biggest question to bed by announcing his decision to stick with the Milwaukee Bucks via a five-year supermax extension. He'll lead a Bucks squad that lost several rotation players (and added Jrue Holiday) this offseason, and a lower-level concern with the team should be a lack of depth behind a fantastic starting five.

    The most significant lingering issue is one of style.

    Milwaukee has finished the last two regular seasons with the best record in the league but has fallen disappointingly short in the playoffs. The rigid defensive scheme and "space it out while Giannis attacks from the top of the arc" offensive approach worked wonders during the last two years, only to lose efficacy against more thorough scouting and superior postseason opponents.

    That can't happen again.

    The Bucks must prove they're flexible—both schematically and with respect to roles. Milwaukee fans are going to tear their hair out if Antetokounmpo averages under 31 minutes per game in the playoffs again.

    Giannis is locked in, Holiday adds a two-way punch, and the Bucks will surely crush the regular season for the third straight year. Nobody will be impressed, and none of that will matter until they prove they're just as good when it counts.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Can They Find Balance?

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves went 19-45 last year and ranked in the bottom 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Their main offseason addition was No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards, who, being a rookie, will likely be a net-negative producer in a significant role.

    Where do we even start with a setup like that?

    Health would help, but Minnesota lost 18 of the last 19 games Karl-Anthony Towns played last season. Even with their best player on the floor, the Wolves were a mess.

    This season has to be about balance. Minnesota has a theoretically sound offensive engine with Towns and D'Angelo Russell's pick-and-pop, but surrounding that group with lineups that can space the floor and defend will be a challenge.

    Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez and Edwards would give the Timberwolves shooting and scoring punch, but none of those three can guard. Ricky Rubio and Josh Okogie are effective stoppers, but teams won't fear them on the perimeter, which will short-circuit KAT and Russell's two-man game.

    Jarrett Culver is...on the team.

    Get the lineups right, and maybe Minnesota can challenge for a play-in spot. Go with a more extreme offense-only look, and trouble awaits. Head coach Ryan Saunders will have to mix and match until he finds groupings that can survive on both ends, but it'll be tricky.

New Orleans Pelicans: How's Zion Looking?

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The short answer to the New Orleans Pelicans' most important question is "pretty good."

    Preseason action isn't the best proving ground, but it's all we've got. So far, Zion Williamson looks a bit fitter than he did last year, and he's shown flashes of the explosiveness that makes him such a handful. One minor quibble: We haven't seen quite as much of Williamson going vertical, though he's been a fast-twitch blur getting from the perimeter to the bucket.

    A few more at-the-square dunks would be nice, but the Pels will take what they can get from a franchise cornerstone with injury questions.

    If Williamson stays healthy enough to log major minutes, he'll get the reps he needs to build better defensive habits and awareness. The numbers will come on their own. It's basically impossible for Zion to fall short of 20 points per game on excellent efficiency if he plays a typical starter's role. It's the finer points of the game that need work.

    New Orleans will face spacing issues because Steven Adams and Jaxson Hayes are strictly at-the-rim players on offense. That could hamper Zion's scoring. But if he stays in good shape and avoids injury, Williamson is going to make a major impact.

    From there, the Pels can get a better idea of how to build around 2019's top pick.

New York Knicks: Can They Stay Patient?

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    A flurry of understated, intelligent offseason moves should inspire confidence in the New York Knicks' revamped front-office regime. No big swings. No hasty win-now gambles. Just shrewd work on the margins.

    Now, the Knicks are in line to have two max salary slots available for 2021 free agency—tools that, in the past, they would have made ill-advised salary dumps or lopsided trades to create. To emphasize the contrast between this version of the Knicks and past ones, the team didn't even use all its cap space in 2020 free agency.

    They've got $18 million in room just sitting there.

    That means New York is primed to take on unwanted salary with assets attached later this season. If you didn't know better, you'd say the Knicks were finally operating with a long-term plan.

    One offseason doesn't redefine an identity, though. New York has to stay the course. Alec Burks ($6 million), Nerlens Noel ($5 million) and Austin Rivers (three years, $10 million, with non-guarantees after the first year) should all be movable at the deadline, and the Knicks will validate their offseason if they flip those players in small deals for draft capital.

    Ideally, these new, sharper Knicks would have surrounded R.J. Barrett with players who could actually augment his skill set, rather than building a roster that mostly hinders him. But if they can stay patient and embrace the big picture, maybe we can start to believe that's part of the ultimate plan.

Oklahoma City Thunder: What's the Goal This Season?

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    The Oklahoma City Thunder may have pulled off the greatest magic trick in memory: tanking without actually losing games.

    A roster that has useful veterans in George Hill, Al Horford and Trevor Ariza and promising younger talent in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort could catch a few breaks and sniff .500. But OKC could also ship those vets off for more draft capital and leave SGA out there surrounded by, well...almost nothing.

    Even if this winds up being a throwaway year, the Thunder will have remade themselves much faster than most teams in their position. The Philadelphia 76ers lost on purpose for several seasons—just to point out what the cost of starting over used to be. It also helps that Oklahoma City doesn't really need its own 2021 first-rounder to be way up toward the top of the lottery. The Thunder have a great shot at Houston's top-four protected pick, plus an outside chance at another in the 20s from the Warriors.

    The incentive to lose isn't as great for OKC as it would normally be for a rebuilder.

    Does that mean the Thunder will try to make the playoffs again after succeeding in that improbable effort with Chris Paul last year? Or will we see GM Sam Presti lean even harder into his future-focused asset accumulation? 

Orlando Magic: Are Trades Imminent?

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    Mike Ehrmann/Associated Press

    At some point, the Orlando Magic will aim higher than the eighth seed.

    An uneventful offseason suggested the Magic remain committed to mediocrity for now, but everything could change if they pursue deals to move Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier during the year.

    Orlando would probably struggle to trade Vooch, but Gordon is a fit almost anywhere, and Fournier is a quality starter on the wing in the last year of his deal. He might be worth a late first-rounder, which may not seem like much—until you realize the non-trade alternatives include losing him for nothing in free agency or overpaying to keep him on a new deal.

    With the new play-in format giving two more teams in each conference a chance to say they kinda, sorta made the playoffs, we might see more organizations like Orlando double down on being halfway decent. Making the play-in tourney might be enough to satisfy ownership (if not fans), even if the best outcome is, ultimately, a quick first-round elimination.

    With essentially the same group that went 33-40 a year ago, the ho-hum Magic are one of the easier teams to project. Unless they finally tear it down in the first step of a grander plan.

Philadelphia 76ers: Is This the Right Roster Around Embiid and Simmons?

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    You have to go all the way back to the 2017-18 season to get a good sense of what might be possible for the revamped Philadelphia 76ers.

    That was when Philly's most used lineup included Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid—three mostly setup-dependent shooters next to a pair of superstars, basically. That group crushed opponents to the tune of a plus-21.7 net rating.

    After a two-year detour, the Sixers have circled back. Now, Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris make up Simmons and Embiid's support staff.

    After trying out a ball-dominant star in Jimmy Butler and then pivoting to an oversized, defense-focused group last season, the Sixers hope they've got the mix right this time.

    If they do, Simmons and Embiid could both easily earn All-NBA nods, and the Sixers could finish atop the East. If the defense suffers, or if Curry and Green don't unlock new dimensions in Doc Rivers' offense, it might be time to swap out stars rather than keep trying different sets of role players. 

Phoenix Suns: Backup Center

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Dario Saric gave the Phoenix Suns something to chew on in the bubble, as he slotted in at the 5 for some scrappy and successful bursts. With untested rookie Jalen Smith and shockingly-still-in-the-NBA perma-project Damian Jones backing up Deandre Ayton, it's possible Phoenix will conclude Saric is its best option.

    This is a relatively minor problem, since Ayton should average somewhere around 35 minutes per game and be on the floor for all the minutes that matter. That we're even discussing it speaks to the strength of the rest of the roster.

    Chris Paul will offer a massive offensive boost over 2019-20 Ricky Rubio while providing similar defensive value. That's to say nothing of his unparalleled rule-bending edge-seeking and nonsense foul-drawing prowess; those will probably be worth an extra win or two over the course of the season.

    Phoenix has at least one cornerstone superstar in Devin Booker, with Ayton possibly joining him this season. Mikal Bridges is already an ace wing stopper at 24, Cam Johnson can stripe it, and Jae Crowder is an ideal fit who brings experience and grit to either forward spot. Don't forget about Langston Galloway as a high-end third guard, either.

    This team is loaded and could be a sneaky pick to finish among the top three in the West. So that leaves us wondering about relatively insignificant issues...like how much 5 Saric can really play.

    Watch out for these guys.

Portland Trail Blazers: We Cool with Zach Collins Being a Linchpin?

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    If it were 2013 and positional versatility hadn't yet become a playoff necessity, it wouldn't be such a big deal that the Portland Trail Blazers are somewhat inflexible in their looks.

    Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum give the Blazers two small guards, and Jusuf Nurkic, though fairly mobile for his size, still fits into the "conventional center" category. The forward spots, likely manned by Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington most of the time, are the only aspect of the roster that feels modern.

    Don't misunderstand. Portland is going to be really good. It's just that it's so easy to imagine a playoff series where Nurkic isn't quite quick enough to handle downsized centers in a five-out offense. Anthony Davis is the scariest boogeyman in that regard, but what about when the Mavs go with Kristaps Porzingis at center, or when Denver keeps Nikola Jokic beyond the arc, or when Serge Ibaka is stationed way outside for the Los Angeles Clippers?

    Zach Collins could change all of this.

    The idealized version of the oft-injured big man could allow the Blazers to match opponents with their own fully stretched floor and switchable units without sacrificing rim defense on the other end. The actual version of Collins is basically one big question mark. This is his fourth season, which isn't quite "now or never" territory, but it's close. And the stakes are high.

    This is a high-level problem to consider, but it's what you get when analyzing a high-level team.

Sacramento Kings: Is Marvin Bagley III a Cornerstone?

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Two injury-shortened seasons, only 10 starts and eye-catching but ultimately empty stats on a bad team. That's what the Sacramento Kings have gotten from Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 pick in 2018.

    Healthy ahead of his third year, Bagley must now validate his draft slot and prove he can do more than pile up points and rebounds on a team opponents rarely take seriously.

    The theory of Bagley as a critical piece on a winner has always been hazy. He hasn't shown the consistent ability to defend the pick-and-roll in drop coverage or move his feet on the perimeter, and he's at 28.8 percent on 118 three-point attempts over two years. These samples are all small, and Bagley went as high as he did in the draft because of his physical tools—quickness, touch around the rim and open-floor speed. Charitably, you could say he hasn't played enough to really leverage those gifts yet.

    Sacramento was wise to invest in De'Aaron Fox with a max extension, but it needs to know much more about Bagley. At present, it's not even clear he deserves to be in a rotation. The Kings will give him a significant role in the hopes of finding out.

    Can he shoot? Does he understand where to be on defense? Will the game ever slow down for him? Is the effort there? Is he a 4 or a 5? Can he stay healthy?

    Ball up all those specific questions about Bagley, and you get a broader one: Is he good enough to be a major part of the Kings' future?

San Antonio Spurs: Will the Vets Get in the Way?

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Derrick White has some fringe star potential, Dejounte Murray is an all-league defender who needs reps to prove his growth as a shooter is real, Lonnie Walker has to run free, Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic and rookie Devin Vassell all deserve chances to establish themselves.

    Will the San Antonio Spurs let them spread their wings, or will a proud organization continue to trust an aging group that, at the moment, probably still gives the team its best chance to sniff a play-in game?

    That modest upside should nudge the Spurs toward embracing their youth. LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay aren't good enough to make San Antonio a playoff team, so there's little logic in leaning on them at the expense of developing the players who could engineer a postseason push in the years to come. Frankly, Aldridge and DeRozan probably wouldn't even be on the roster if their contracts, both expiring, weren't so undesirable to other teams.

    There's a dynamic, athletic, exciting young San Antonio team in the offing—if the franchise trims the vets' roles.

    Long game or short game? You choose, Spurs.

Toronto Raptors: Can They Score in Half-Court Sets?

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    With Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka soaking up most of the center minutes, the Toronto Raptors were merely a mid-pack half-court offense last season. That weakness was more pronounced in the playoffs, and it seems unlikely Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher—basically the replacements in the rotation for Gasol and Ibaka—will unlock new options.

    It's never smart to rule out another leap for Pascal Siakam. He's added new dimensions every year of his career and could develop into more of a weapon outside of transition, and OG Anunoby has shown some flashes of more dynamic offense in the preseason. Maybe the Raptors will find new ways to manufacture points against a set defense.

    Head coach Nick Nurse has wowed us with tactical tweaks before.

    Still, Toronto, which ranked second in the league in transition frequency last year, remains a team that depends too heavily on scattered situations to score.

    If it can change that, despite inferior personnel for the task, this team could push for a conference finals berth again. If not, the Raps might have to work hard for one of the bottom four playoff spots in the East.

Utah Jazz: What's the Value of Continuity?

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles and Royce O'Neale have been together for three years now. Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic are entering their second seasons with the Utah Jazz.

    Even the new faces are old, as Derrick Favors is back to man second-unit center duties.

    This group will be less affected by the short layoff and truncated preseason than most others, which is part of the reason Utah warrants mention as one of a handful of teams that could rack up enough victories to win the West. That's a long shot, but if the L.A. teams coast, Dallas underwhelms and Denver can't compensate for its offseason losses, it's possible.

    Remember, too, the Jazz were a rimmed-out Mike Conley three from advancing to the second round in the bubble.

    They say familiarity breeds contempt. For the Jazz, it could instead produce a snakily dominant season—if continuity actually matters.

Washington Wizards: Is Russell Westbrook Good for Bradley Beal?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    You can't overthink this one.

    Sure, we need to know if there's a way for the Washington Wizards to be something other than terrible on defense. And it'd be nice if rookie Deni Avdija played his first season like the draft steal many believe him to be. But nothing matters more to the Wizards—now and in the future—than what Russell Westbrook can do for Bradley Beal.

    If the fit works, and Westbrook allows Beal to continue last year's scoring binge without hijacking too many quarters with mid-range pull-ups and head-down bursts to the rim, the Wizards could threaten for a playoff spot and, most importantly, give Beal hope he's not wasting his prime with the organization.

    The downside risk is real. Russ could decline, continue to stand around off the ball and turn in defensive performances that still feel worse than they should be. In that scenario, Beal could grow frustrated. It's one thing when Washington struggles because its other All-Star is injured, as was the case last year. It'll be another if the guy who's supposed to make life easier for Beal only makes it more difficult and frustrating.

    To his credit, Westbrook set a fierce and focused tone during the preseason. He's got to sustain that legendary intensity while also finding ways to make life easier for his teammate, who happens to be a superior player.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.