The Biggest Question Mark for Every NBA Team so Far
Enough of the NBA's regular season has been played for us to start asking important questions. This is great to hear, because we're a curious bunch around these parts.
Question marks will vary in severity, relying solely on a team's performance to this point. Some will be low-hanging fruit. Others will be less obvious. A few will be nitpicky. A handful are borne from genuinely stark concern.
They will all aim to highlight the most important unsettled matters or developments through the first 10ish games of the 2020-21 campaign.
Potential answers will be doled out and conclusions drawn whenever appropriate, but we're not here to play Captain Fix It. This is instead a space for inquiring minds to, well, inquire.
Atlanta Hawks: How Should They Close Games?
Injuries are dictating many of the Atlanta Hawks' lineup decisions through the first part of the season. Clint Capela has missed time. Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo have barely played. Kris Dunn and Onyeka Okongwu have yet to make their debuts. Atlanta has relied upon Brandon Goodwin, Solomon Hill and even Nathan Knight more than anyone could have envisioned.
Depth is allowing the Hawks to navigate their injury bugs without imploding. They have plenty of capable bodies to get them through, and their offense, despite some recent struggles, still ranks inside the top seven of points scored per possession.
Crunch time is an altogether different beast. Even with a limited number of personnel available, Atlanta is facing difficult decisions regularly down the stretch of tight tilts and the fourth quarter in general. Those choices will only get harder as the roster inches closer to full strength.
Do they close with Clint Capela, for his defense? What does that mean for Gallinari and John Collins? Will they both play? Just one of them? How does the late-game wing rotation shake out? Who from the quartet of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish closes? Should Collins play the 5, with Capela on the bench, to make room for three of them? Is it possible Gallo plays some 3, leaving room for only one of them?
This is an interesting, borderline good, problem. But it's still a problem. The Hawks are shooting 19 percent from three (4-of-21) and a minus-19 through 21 minutes of clutch play. Their entire fourth-quarter splits aren't any better. Small sample sizes are drenched in caveats, but as of now, Trae Young is probably the only one who is guaranteed a spot on the floor to close games.
Boston Celtics: Do They Have Enough Defensive Versatility?
Losing Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in consecutive offseasons might be taking a toll on the Boston Celtics defense. Their form of rim protection has so often started on the perimeter, with ball containment and shot-profile manipulation, and they no longer have the same level of versatility in the rotation.
Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum arm the Celtics with three genuinely good perimeter stoppers. Life gets ultra-iffy after them. Boston doesn't have any true wings coming off the bench. Semi Ojeleye is the closest it gets. Rookie Payton Pritchard, while holding up on defense, is alarmingly important to what the team is doing.
Dynamic bigs can help mitigate the issue. But do the Celtics have any?
Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams III are not functional deterrents. Boston is 19th in the share of opponent shots that come at the rim, and rival offenses are converting 67.7 percent of their looks when they reach the basket (25th). None of the team's bigs are monopolies on the defensive glass, either.
A shallower pool of talent and, in turn, lineup versatility is so far a recipe for awkwardness. Kemba Walker's return won't do anything to change it. The Celtics' overarching issues seem ingrained into the roster and look like they can only be addressed by acquiring outside help.
Brooklyn Nets: Can They Acquire Another Perimeter Defender?
Super encouraging starts from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving mandate we default to optimism, even after Spencer Dinwiddie tore his left ACL. The Brooklyn Nets go from zero to thermonuclear in under six seconds, Caris LeVert's shot-making will improve, and this roster is deeper than initially advertised.
That depth doesn't always leak over to the less-glamorous end. The Nets have done a good job chasing teams off the three-point line, but opponents are draining just 35.5 percent of their wide-open triples. That conversion rate will climb. Brooklyn also allows an unsettling number of looks at the rim and is among the league's worst defensive rebounding teams.
Upping Jarrett Allen's minutes—they're starting him at this writing—will help. Bruce Brown is worth exploring further, as well. The Nets still feel like one perimeter defender short—the stopper who Taurean Prince is theoretically supposed to be.
Certain lineups will hide it. Others will score so much it won't matter. But it is most evident when the Nets downsize and leave both Allen and DeAndre Jordan on the bench, with Durant and Jeff Green populating their frontcourt.
Those arrangements are currently getting roasted on defense, surrendering over 1.18 points per possession and allowing opponents to grab more than 40 percent of their misses. Going small down the stretch was the crux of their Jan. 3 loss to the Washington Wizards.
Filling the big-wing void will be an issue no matter how Brooklyn builds its lineups. Potential solutions are not in-house. It feels like the Nets need to make a trade—and not for James Harden.
Charlotte Hornets: Will Devonte' Graham Get Going?
The Charlotte Hornets are presently flirting with top-10 defensive efficiency, just like we all predicted.
Please note: No one predicted as much. Their defensive performance screams unsustainable. They didn't have viable center depth in the first place and most certainly don't following Cody Zeller's left hand injury. They are forcing turnovers in droves without fouling and are bottom five in the share of opponent shots they allow at the rim and from beyond the arc. Something will give. Probably. (Right?)
Devonte' Graham's early-season slump is more concerning, because it underscores the Hornets' overall offensive struggles. They don't have a ton of shot creation beyond himself, LaMelo Ball or Gordon Hayward, and the team at large both struggles to finish around the rim and is having its outside clip sustained by efficiency of the few.
Charlotte' offense likely won't climb out of the doldrums until Graham becomes a steadier source of scoring. He is draining just 34.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys and posting an effective field-goal percentage of 25.7 on pull-up jumpers—the fourth-worst mark in the league among 85 players averaging at least three such attempts per game.
Graham is not subsidizing his off-the-dribble shot-making with expert finishing around the basket. He has never excelled in that area and is converting just 25 percent of his looks at the rim. His progression to the mean is inevitable, but this start remains uncomfortable. He seems visibly shaken, not looking for his shot as often when he has the ball. The Hornets won't be an Eastern Conference play-in threat until he improves, and with his free agency on the horizon, they'll have some tough calls to make if he doesn't.
Chicago Bulls: What's the Direction?
It feels like a minor miracle that the Chicago Bulls are hovering around .500. Head coach Billy Donovan has done a nice job of juggling minutes between his vets and the kiddies, which is to say, winning games doesn't appear to be the main priority.
Just so we're clear: That's totally cool. The Bulls are positioned to the play the longer game. Less cool is the absence of a concrete identity. Watching them thus far is like staring at a formless lump of clay. There is little sense of what they're trying to or could potentially become.
Chicago's ambiguity is loudest on offense. Its style is indistinct. Only a handful of teams put less pressure on the rim and play in transition at a lower frequency. The Bulls generate a good number of corner threes, but a huge portion of their looks continue to come from mid-range.
Starting Otto Porter Jr. while Lauri Markkanen is away from the team has injected some life into how Chicago plays, but it doesn't address the root issue: the absence of a real floor general. Neither Coby White nor Zach LaVine is currently fitting the bill, even if their self-creation remains paramount.
Where the Bulls go from here is unclear. They have enough youngsters to stay the course, but it doesn't really feel like they're tracking toward anything special with this group. If they slip far enough below .500—a possible formality given their upcoming spate of matchups against likely contenders—it might be more prudent to consider a shak-eup in which Patrick Williams and maaaybe White are their only off-limits assets.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Is the Defense Sustainable?
Here's a list of every team allowing fewer points per possessions outside garbage time than the Cleveland Cavaliers entering games on Jan. 7:
- Philadelphia 76ers
This is, in a word, shocking. The Cavaliers don't have the personnel on paper to suggest they are among the league's elite defensive machines and are dealing with lineup inconsistencies incited by various injuries to key players—including rookie Isaac Okoro, who missed five games with a left ankle sprain (and was on the COVID-19 healthy and safety protocol list) before rejoining the rotation, and who also profiles as one of their best perimeter defenders.
Which begs the question: Is this sustainable?
To a T, probably not. The Cavs are forcing turnovers more often than any team while ranking eighth in opponent foul rate. They also place in the bottom five of defensive rebounding and are allowing rival offenses to work in transition on 19.4 percent of their possessions—the league's highest mark.
Regression is unavoidable. How far they'll actually fall is a separate matter. For all that seems untenable about their defense, the Cavs are working their butts off. No team is averaging more deflections per game, and they're extremely active around the basket, even if they're getting burned on the defensive boards.
Dallas Mavericks: Is Their Shooting Actually a Problem?
Worrying about the Dallas Mavericks offense in its entirety is a fool's errand. Luka Doncic will play his way into shape, and the eventual return of Kristaps Porzingis assures them of a third bankable scorer to pair with their 21-year-old cornerstone and Tim Hardaway Jr.
And yet, Dallas' onset shooting warts aren't necessarily fleeting. Its 32.9 percent clip from deep ranks 27th, behind only the Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans, and the roster isn't flush with the most reliable floor-spacers.
Doncic himself is at once a non-issue and part of the calculus. He won't bury under 20 percent of his triples forever, but the degree of difficulty on his looks does put a cap on his efficiency. He drilled just 32.1 percent of his treys through his first two seasons.
More than that, other actual slumps are harder to find. Jalen Brunson (31.6 percent), Trey Burke (34.8 percent), Dorian Finney-Smith (28.6 percent) and Josh Richardson (32.6 percent) are all posting lackluster clips from deep, but they're not deviating so far from their normals that they're necessarily in temporary ruts.
Fixing this is a defining priority. Enviable spacing is too important to the livelihood of the Mavericks offense. They haven't surrounded Doncic with a healthy mix of other shot creators. They're arguably thinner in that department after swapping Seth Curry for Richardson. Without lethal threats from long range, Doncic won't be afforded the same room to maneuver inside the arc.
Ditching some—or many—of the minutes he plays beside Dwight Powell might help. The latter has basically stopped shooting threes altogether and is, for now, a drain on Dallas' floor balance. Doncic is hitting just 13.3 percent of his triples when they share the court, and the offense is doing nothing during those minutes overall. At the very least, until something changes, the Mavericks may want to limit the number of reps they give to lineups that feature both Powell and Finney-Smith.
Denver Nuggets: Is the Defense Really This Bad?
Expecting some level of defensive regression from the Denver Nuggets was always fair, if not the standard. They lost two of their best stoppers over the offseason, in Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant, and more minutes are going to the readily beatable Michael Porter Jr.
Denver ranks inside the bottom five of points allowed per possession and is hard-pressed to find any bright spots. Its new starting five, with Porter subbed in for Will Barton, is getting flamed at the basket and from beyond the arc, and reverting back to the old opening lineup during MPJ's absence hasn't done a damn thing.
Certain aspects of the Nuggets' defensive struggles will get better. Opposing teams are shooting 71.7 percent at the rim and knocking down 44.4 percent of their wide-open threes. That's unlucky, and those numbers should normalize over time.
Normalize to what is anyone's guess. Denver doesn't have any ready-made solutions on the roster, and Porter's individual defense may be a permanent problem.
Failing a trade, the Nuggets can only hope their opponent shot profile overturns the current results. They are seventh in expected field-goal percentage based on the location of looks they're surrendering, but they rank 26th in actual effective field-goal percentage allowed—further evidence they're suffering from at least some bad luck.
Detroit PIstons: Does Blake Griffin Have More to Offer?
League-worst records don't always lend themselves to silver linings. The Detroit Pistons are different. They are fun and not at all lacking substance.
Jerami Grant is faring much better than expected in his expanded offensive role. Prior to his hip injury, Killian Hayes showed signs of good decision-making and functional fluidity despite his thorny efficiency. Josh Jackson is the good kind of active at both ends. Delon Wright is hitting set threes again. Saddiq Bey is going to be a problem—for other teams—and has an offensive floor game worth further exploration. People were wrong about rookie Isaiah Stewart (namely me). Detroit as a whole is fifth in total crunch time played.
Aside from Sekou Doumbouya getting squeezed into a smaller role, the Pistons' biggest concern is actually the status of their most proven player: Blake Griffin.
Granted, he isn't the only veteran who has underwhelmed. Derrick Rose, who suffered a right knee contusion on Jan. 6, is shooting 47 percent at the rim. But he still has a more discernible purpose to this team. Detroit is terribly thin at point guard, and his activity inside the arc continues to command defensive attention.
Griffin's struggles are more of an actual obstacle. His three-point clip has cratered after his past two performances, and he doesn't offer the Pistons much more if his outside shot isn't finding nylon. A combination of age and injuries—specifically knee injuries—appear to be catching up with him. He has never been less inclined to attack the basket. Just 22 percent of his looks are coming at the rim, by far and away a career low.
Getting limited value out of Griffin is problematic for a variety of reasons, including the most obvious one. The Pistons won't be able to move the final two years and $75.8 million left on his contract if his efficiency continues crumbling under the weight of a third-option-type shot profile. But the experimental minutes he's blocking are just as big of an issue, if not the larger one. Doumbouya's floor time is down in part because of how crowded Detroit's frontline remains, and playing Griffin at the 4 means fewer reps for more dynamic lineups that use Bey, Grant or Jackson as the de facto power forward.
Golden State Warriors: How High Can Steph Curry Lift the Offense?
Draymond Green's return buys the Golden State Warriors time to figure out their defense. They're already faring better on that end since he rejoined the rotation.
Their offense does not have that kind of in-built answer. They are 15th in half-court efficiency and don't get out in transition nearly enough to offset their shoddy spacing. And make no mistake: That shoddy spacing is a hashtag problem.
Kelly Oubre Jr. will swish more than 17.4 percent of his wide-open threes. (Note: This is a massive improvement over how he started the season.) Brad Wanamaker should hit more than 25 percent of his triples. The Warriors have the option of leaning into more Mychal Mulder minutes. This half-court attack isn't incurable.
That's hardly a compliment. And even noticeable improvement won't deter defenses from throwing all the bodies at Stephen Curry. Golden State does not have anyone to make teams pay for traps and intense gambles, and the floor will only shrink with the return of Green, another non-threat from the outside.
All of which puts an inordinate amount of pressure on Curry. Minutes with him on the court are still hovering below league-average offensive efficiency even after his detonations in wins over the Portland Trail Blazers (Jan. 3) and Sacramento Kings (Jan. 4). And just so we're clear: That's not on him. If the Warriors still want to run a read-and-react offense, they need players who can, well, read and react—and who will be able to consistently find him for his trademark relocations.
Giving Curry more on-ball control is a smart move, and newcomers should get more comfortable playing in head coach Steve Kerr's system as the season soldiers on. But this isn't purely a matter of patience and process. For now, and maybe indefinitely, it's an issue of a supporting cast woefully thin on dependable playmakers and shooters.
Houston Rockets: How Has James Harden's Market Been Impacted by Start of Season?
Who knows. Harden has neither rescinded his trade request nor added any more teams to a wish list that includes the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks (related: LOL), Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers. The expectation should be that he'll get moved before the March 25 deadline, but forecasting where is two-syllable tough.
Brooklyn and Philadelphia, Harden's top two choices, have complicated matters with their respective starts. The Nets need to shore up their defensive depth before acquiring another ball-dominant scorer. Spencer Dinwiddie's left ACL injury leaves them a little more vulnerable to absences from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but adding Harden is mostly redundant given how well both stars have played—unless Brooklyn doesn't see Caris LeVert's performance evening out (it will).
Ponying up the assets necessary to acquire Harden is even harder for the Sixers. Surrounding Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with more shooters has worked out quite well. Who knew? (Everyone.)
Philadelphia currently sits atop the East, with a top-12 offensive rating and the league's best defense. If MVP voting were held today, Embiid would probably win the whole thing. The motivation to flip a 24-year-old Simmons for a 31-year-old Harden might still exist, but it's miles from urgent. Acquiring more bench depth could cement the Sixers' title chances. Harden is no longer a need.
Identifying likely destinations beyond Brooklyn and Philly is no picnic. Milwaukee doesn't have the assets. Miami is in a similar boat; too many people are overestimating the appeal of a package built around Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and picks.
Going after Harden feels a touch too drastic for the Blazers. Their defense remains an Achilles heel, and he will, at minimum, cost them CJ McCollum, most of their prospects and a bunch of first-rounders. (They'd have to remove protections on the 2021 pick they already owe to Houston.) The Celtics offense is chugging along without Kemba Walker, and their defensive struggles thus far make it hard to ship out Jaylen Brown (a top-20 player right now) for an offense-first star.
Do the Golden State Warriors boast the right mix of desperation and belief in themselves this season to go nuclear? The Toronto Raptors have become trendy suggestions, but can the Rockets justify a return built around Pascal Siakam after his freezing-cold start? Might the New Orleans Pelicans consider going nuclear? Will a team come out of the woodwork? This season likely ends with Harden in a different city. We're just in no position to guess which one.
Indiana Pacers: Is This Version of Victor Oladipo Here to Stay?
Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers began this season seemingly speeding toward divorce. He denied a report from the Indianapolis Star's J. Michael that he angered teammates by openly asking rival players last season if he could join their squad, but with free agency around the corner and his struggles since rupturing his right quad tendon in 2018, their separation felt fait accompli.
As one league exec told The Athletic's Bob Kravitz: "He's gone. They'll move him."
Counterpoint: Will they?
T.J. Warren's left foot injury definitely changes the thinking. He never rendered Oladipo expendable, but making a move now would come as even more of a blow to the wing rotation.
Equally game-changing, though, is Oladipo's own performance. He's averaging 20.4 points and 4.3 assists while drilling 41.2 percent of his threes. His finishing around the rim is wonky, but he's getting to the basket more often than he ever has in Indiana, and the threat of his shot creation has opened up things for everyone else—most notably, and importantly, Malcolm Brogdon. Oladipo is downing 38.5 percent of his pull-up triples.
The Pacers are much better off holding on to this version of Oladipo than dealing him. But that means they have to pay him. And after so many stars signed extensions, the market will likely dictate they shell out max or near-max money to keep him.
Indiana is not a team that can make said investment willy-nilly. It has already paid Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner and has to think about Warren's 2022 free agency. Forking over superstar value for Oladipo only makes sense if the version of him the Pacers have now is here to stay—something they can't yet know.
Los Angeles Clippers: Do They Need a Floor General?
The Los Angeles Clippers continue to work without a pure floor general, and it is a delicate existence.
That fragility is subtle. The Clippers are second in points scored per possession and have two superstar shot-makers who can moonlight as table-setters. Kawhi Leonard leads the team in assists, and Paul George is burning through more pick-and-rolls per game than anyone. But the entire roster is constructed around secondary playmakers rather than primary orchestrators, including Luke Kennard, Lou Williams and Reggie Jackson. That isn't always tenable.
Los Angeles is reeling the most when trying to steal time without both George and Leonard. It is a minus-48 through the 69 minutes they have spent on the bench. Those stretches will be nonexistent when it matters most, in the postseason, but the Clippers have also seen a significant dip in shot quality when one of their stars sit.
They are putting zero pressure on the rim and taking more than 41 percent of their shots from mid-range when Leonard plays without George (h/t Justin Russo of the Clip & Roll podcast). And though they're generating more opportunities at the basket when PG runs the show without Kawhi, they're not manufacturing any trips to the free-throw line.
This hasn't crippled the Clippers. Again: They're second in offensive efficiency. Others will be more inclined to focus on a defense that ranks in the bottom 10 of points allowed per possession. But the latter feels super fluky. Monitoring how the offense fares during staggered-star minutes is more important.
Los Angeles Lakers: Is Anthony Davis Relying Too Much on His Jumper?
Full disclosure: I can't bring myself to get worked up about anything related to the Los Angeles Lakers. Their defensive effort has waned, Montrezl Harrell has posed some matchup problems, and they are very much on autopilot, like, 66 percent of the time (or something). Big whoop.
They still have a top-nine offense and defense. Indulging any question or concern is akin to nitpicking.
So, let's split some hairs.
Head coach Frank Vogel wants Anthony Davis to attempt five threes per game. You might say Davis has taken that request personally. He isn't jacking five treys every night, but a career-high 22.3 percent of his looks are coming from beyond the arc, and he hoisted 10 triples (making four) during Los Angeles' Jan. 5 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Davis' attraction to jumpers hasn't stopped here. His mid-range frequency has skyrocketed—mostly at the expense of his volume around the rim. Just over 25 percent of his shots are coming from point-blank range, a share that would comfortably rank as a career low.
In theory, this seems awkward, verging on problematic. Davis has never been the most efficient shooter. In practice, it isn't an issue. He is putting down 49 percent of his mid-range jumpers and nearly 41 percent of his threes, both of which would be career highs. The overwhelming majority of his outside looks are also coming off assists, so he has not completely reinvented the manner in which his scoring comes—just the location.
Still, Davis' capacity to put pressure on the rim is among his greatest strengths, and his outside shooting will only be an asset so long as the efficiency holds. Will it? Debatable. He turned into Kevin Durant from the perimeter during the bubble restart, but his current pace still represents a stark departure from the rest of his career.
Memphis Grizzlies: Should They Already Be Sellers?
Low-hanging fruit? Definitely. And that's OK.
Focusing on Brandon Clarke's sophomore dip is totally fine. His efficiency has plummeted relative to last season, including at the foul line, and the mechanics on his jumper remain wacky. It looks like buffering dial-up internet in bodily form.
The Memphis Grizzlies' bigger picture is still more interesting. Injuries to Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant and Justise Winslow have left them light years from full strength and torpedoed what already projected to be flimsy playoff hopes.
Sure, the Western Conference is shorter on powerhouses this season. But it's no less forgiving. Memphis doesn't have another reliable shot creator after Morant and stands to be inescapably tied to one of the West's bottom-two spots if his Grade 2 left ankle sprain sidelines him for the full five weeks or more.
Calls to tank are too often ill-thought. That's not happening here. This is more like a nudge. The 2021 draft is incredibly deep, and scant few teams have punted on the play-in chase. Steering into the long term would capitalize on a market inefficiency, and Memphis has vets, mainly Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas, who should pique the attention of contenders and fringe contenders.
Miami Heat: Should Tyler Herro Be Playing so Much Point Guard?
Nothing about the Miami Heat's less-than-stellar start is etched in stone. Jimmy Butler has dealt with a right ankle injury, they're reformulating the frontline rotation next to Bam Adebayo, and above all, they wrapped up their 2019-20 campaign less than three months ago.
They have earned, and deserve, patience.
That extends to their Tyler Herro-as-a-point guard experiment, which is clearly here to stay. Over 41 percent of his possessions have come at the 1 this season, up from 19 percent last year. The Heat continued to bring Goran Dragic off the bench even with Butler out of the lineup. They are, it seems, hell-bent on baptizing Herro by fire.
It hasn't looked pretty. Miami's offense ranks in the 6th percentile with Herro at the point, and most of those reps have seen him play in tandem with Butler. This isn't exactly groundbreaking. This is an entirely different role for Herro. The Heat have to stomach all the growing pains—turnovers, responses to double-teams, getting tunnel vision in traffic, etc.—that come with grooming a new primary creator.
Sucking it up in the interim should be worth it later. At least, that's the hope. As Basketball News' Nekias Duncan wrote:
"Herro isn't a point guard, but that's exactly why it's important for him to get these reps now. Barring an apocalyptic [number] of injuries, you can comfortably slate the Heat as a playoff team. Allowing a guy as important to the Heat's long-term goals as Herro—as a player or a trade asset—to stretch the limits of his game is more important than a gaudy regular-season net rating."
We'll see whether this experiment pans out to the point of becoming a new normal. The Heat might not need it to immediately, with both Butler and Dragic in tow. But their short-term title hopes and long-term trajectory (including potential trade aspirations) will look a lot better if it does.
Milwaukee Bucks: Will the Three-Point Shooting Ever Come Down to Earth?*
*Subject to change by the time you finish reading this asterisk.
Please let me know if you have an airtight grip on the Milwaukee Bucks' biggest mystery. They are, for me personally, the hardest team to comprehend, at once blanketed in question marks and failing to spark any meaningful doubt or curiosity.
Blowouts are no doubt sowing the seeds of my cluelessness. Only one of the Bucks' games has been decided by fewer than 10 points—and it was their opening-night loss to the Boston Celtics. Plenty of questions are swirling around my noggin as a result.
Is this really the league's No. 1 offense? Will human energy drink Thanasis Antetokounmpo keep getting minutes once Torrey Craig returns? Can Milwaukee climb back into the top 10 of points allowed per possession while playing Bobby Portis so much? Should any of those Portis minutes ever come without Giannis Antetokounmpo next to him? Will (a healthy) Pat Connaughton stumble his way back into the rotation? Will he keep missing bunnies around the basket if he does? Are long twos Bryn Forbes' favorite shot?
Defaulting to Milwaukee's fiery shooting from beyond the arc ends up winning out, mostly because I can't bring myself to lodge an impassioned inquiry into anything else. (The Portis minutes are a close second.)
The Bucks are draining a league-high (by a mile) 45.7 percent of their above-the-break triples. Brothers Antetokounmpo are the only rotation players currently shooting under—*checks notes*—38.5 percent from long range. Six players have attempted at least 20 threes and are converting them at a 40-plus-percent clip.
Like, what? This is definitely, in no way, sustainable. But it does suggest they've surrounded Giannis with more shooting than ever before. Which is terrifying.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Is the Defense THIS Bad?
Expectations were low for the Minnesota Timberwolves defense entering the season. They have some intriguing to menacing individual talent—Jarrett Culver, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, Ricky Rubio—but that crop of players is heavy on inexperience and absent both a backline anchor and true shutdown stopper. This team always had the makings of a poor defensive group.
And they're somehow worse than projected even by those standards.
The Timberwolves are dead last in points allowed per possession and 29th in both opponent effective field-goal percentage and defensive rebounding rate. Rival offenses are lighting them up at the rim and from beyond the arc, and it isn't clear how much can be chalked up to small-sample noise and bad luck. Teams shouldn't shoot 70 percent at the rim and over 40 percent on above-the-break threes all year, but the Timberwolves are also 25th in projected opponent effective field-goal percentage based on shot location.
Regression to the mean won't save them. Nor will the return of Okogie from a left hamstring injury. Ditto for Karl-Anthony Towns' return from a left wrist injury. They are much better with him on the floor, but he's logged just 60 minutes. More than anything, there is no good time to count on him fixing your defense.
Too many things plague the Timberwolves—more than we have the time and space to get into here. But, though it sounds like an oversimplification, defending smarter would be a good start. They can eat away at dumb fouls. And they can definitely do a better job juggling their matchups.
Since their opening two victories, they are 29th in points allowed per possession after a made shot, according to Inpredictable. There is no reason for them to lollygag their way back when they have actual time to set up. Life is hard enough on offense without Towns. The Timberwolves can't afford to hamstring themselves further on defense when they didn't have any margin for error in the first place.
New Orleans Hornets: Is the Half-Court Offense Salvageable?
New Orleans Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy blasted the team's transition defense after their Jan. 6 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. His criticism was fair game. They have not defended consistently on the break this season.
In the grand scheme of things, though, New Orleans' offense is the bigger concern—a much, much bigger concern.
The Pelicans are too frequently helpless outside of transition. They rank 27th in half-court efficiency and are the league's worst three-point shooting team. Some of what ails them is treatable. JJ Redick isn't going to convert under 25 percent of his triples until the end of time, and Van Gundy generally has the right idea staggering the minutes of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Ingram, his two best, and only real, half-court initiators.
Whether the Pelicans have the bandwidth to significantly buoy their offense is a different story. They need someone else who can generate shots and get them into their sets and probably don't have him. Lonzo Ball has never been that player, rookie Kira Lewis Jr. isn't playing, and Van Gundy has yet to give Nickeil Alexander-Walker the rope necessary to gauge his limits.
There is a chance New Orleans has yet to even experience the worst. Lineups that feature both Steven Adams and Zion Williamson are shooting 38.8 percent from distance, and Bledsoe himself is canning more than 38 percent of his long-range looks. Neither is definitively sustainable.
Better shooting from Redick and Josh Hart (29.0 percent from three) would help—and is inevitable. But the Pelicans will always have a finite number of above-average marksmen to deploy at once, and additional spacing alone won't solve everything about their half-court attack. Theirs is a problem that doesn't seem like it can be fully remedied from within.
New York Knicks: Is THIS Sustainable?
Put your hands in the air if you saw the New York Knicks sporting a top-five Eastern Conference record nearly 10 games into the season.
(Pauses for effect.)
Congratulations to everyone who lifted their limbs. Please seek out the nearest fire extinguisher. Your pants are about to be ablaze.
Sussing out a potentially untenable element of the Knicks' lively start is an exercise in closing your eyes and randomly pointing. What they're doing isn't necessarily a complete mirage, but it's thoroughly questionable.
New York entered Thursday ranked fourth in points allowed per possession despite also placing 28th in the share of shots allowed at the rim and from three-point range. Opponents are knocking down an impossibly low 31.9 percent of their wide-open treys. Julius Randle is doing his best Giannis Antetokounmpo-on-offense impression. He and RJ Barrett are both averaging over 38 minutes per game.
Alec Burks (injured), Elfrid Payton and Austin Rivers are all shooting ridiculously high clips from three. But the offense is 25th in points scored per possession and committing turnovers more frequently than every team except the Miami Heat.
Chances are the Knicks' time above .500 isn't going to last. That's not an insult. Nor is it damning. They're playing something resembling a cohesive brand of basketball. That matters. They're also really fun, and they might stay really fun. The jury is still out on whether they're actually good.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Is Darius Bazley Their Second Cornerstone?
Meaningful questions are difficult to pose on the Oklahoma City Thunder's behalf. So much of their roster is either unknown, makeshift or both. They tore everything down to rebuild around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, their only sure thing, and it is much too early to start asking profound questions or drawing big-picture conclusions.
Perhaps Lu Dort will belong in the 2022 three-point contest. Maybe Theo Maledon is the most irrationally confident passer alive. Gilgeous-Alexander might be talented enough to pilot a top-tier offense despite Oklahoma City's relative inefficiency. We have to wait and see.
This applies to Darius Bazley's ceiling. His ceiling is also an exception. He is showing enough to recalibrate the way we view this season. It isn't about gauging SGA's alpha viability, identifying long-term glue guys and seeing whether the Thunder can add a second primary cornerstone in the 2021 draft.
It is about all of those things—and also about determining whether Bazley's place in their future must be upgraded from complementary building block to full-fledged pillar.
His start to the season is that impressive. He is running the floor. Finding cracks in the defense off-ball. Letting 'er rip from deep without hesitation. Taking on impossible defensive assignments, like Jimmy Butler and Zion Williamson. Holding up as a rim protector.
The list goes on, and it includes flashes of self-creation. Bazley finished a drive to his weak side with his off hand, after some creative dribbling, in Brandon Ingram's face during Oklahoma City's Jan. 6 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. I haven't stopped thinking about it since.
Declaring Bazley—who, by the way, doesn't turn 21 until June—a star prospect is premature. Here's the thing: asserting that he's not is, too.
Orlando Magic: Where Do They Go Following Markelle Fultz's Injury?
Markelle Fultz's torn left ACL is devastating for a variety of reasons, the most soul-crushing of which is what this does to his career trajectory. His shooting remains an issue, but he had chiseled out a real, substantive role for himself with the Orlando Magic. He is a pesky defender, has shown he can finish around the rim and, more recently, looked like he could direct an NBA offense, albeit an imperfect one.
Continuing along this arc is no longer a given. Torn ACLs aren't career-ending, but Fultz's entire NBA tenure has featured one question mark after another. Any detour threatens to compromise his long-term value. Halted growth is the best-case scenario—and, to be sure, a feasible one.
Immediately, though, the Magic have issues to reconcile that don't directly involve Fultz. Chief among them: is it time to embrace the "R" word?
Rebuilding has long seemed like Orlando's only path out of the Eastern Conference's middle. The team has instead sought to tread water at every turn. Jonathan Isaac's own torn left ACL didn't compel a redirect. Fultz's absence might.
The Magic are now down two players they've deemed integral to their present and future. (Both Fultz and Isaac agreed to extensions before the deadline.) They never profiled as a contender, but they have no plausible means of shooting up the East's hierarchy now. If that doesn't prove it's a good time to blow it up, even if only for a year, what will?
Dismantling what's already in place is not a mindless task. Nikola Vucevic has two years and $46 million left on his contract after this season at a time when more traditional centers carry less value than ever. Evan Fournier ($17.2 million expiring deal) and Aaron Gordon ($18.1 million this year and $16.4 million next season) should be easier to reroute, but their salaries are large enough that Orlando may not be able to maximize their value without taking back less savory and longer-term money.
Simply punting on this season without burning anything down is always an option. Vooch and contract-year Fournier may not take too kindly to having their minutes slashed, but that is the Magic's prerogative. They may also just be organically bad enough to tumble outside play-in territory and enjoy the higher lottery odds that come with it. Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, theirs is a fluid situation—just as it's been for a while, only more so, and with a higher probability they're convinced it's time to reset.
Philadelphia 76ers: Are They Deep Enough?
Labor over the James Harden dilemma if you feel like it—assuming the Philadelphia 76ers even have one. Rehashing the will-they-should-they-can-they of it all wants for substance after how well they've started the season.
They have but one truly troubling loss—a Jan. 7 letdown against a Brooklyn Nets squad without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie. And though this isn't an excuse, they themselves didn't have Seth Curry (a starter), Furkan Korkmaz or Mike Scott.
Really, the Sixers' loss to the Nets speaks to both their depth issues and the appeal of a Harden pursuit. They don't have the talent outside the starting five right now to navigate key absences and off nights. Head coach Doc Rivers' decision to sparingly stagger Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons renders them even more top-heavy. (By the way: The Simmons-but-no-Embiid minutes are once again an issue.)
Philly is so far a minus-one in the 104 minutes it has logged without both stars. That's...not bad. But is it sustainable? Embiid will invariably miss more games this year, scheduled or not. Having Tobias Harris helps, but the Sixers become uncomfortably dependent on Shake Milton or rookie Tyrese Maxey to generate offense when one of their stars takes a seat.
To what end this matters isn't totally clear. Do they need a different type of star on the roster—a la Harden or Bradley Beal—to rebrand their top-heaviness? Would targeting someone like George Hill or JJ Redick be just as much of a help? Is there a middle ground between "superstar in his prime" and "older bench player" they can land using their non-Embiid and -Simmons assets? Kyle Lowry, perhaps?
Knowing the track record of team president Daryl Morey, the Sixers will make that call, in some form or another, before the trade deadline.
Phoenix Suns: Are They Getting to the Rim Enough?
Asking whether the Phoenix Suns' start is a flash in the pan would technically be all right. They are brand-spanking-new to the contender's circle, don't have the most proven second-stringers and are the only team that ranks in the top seven of both points scored and allowed per possession.
At the same time, the Suns aren't coming out of nowhere. They hinted at having another gear before ever entering the Disney bubble last season, after Deandre Ayton returned from his 25-game suspension, and then they added Chris Paul.
Everything they're doing right now makes sense. Why wouldn't they be defending well after Ayton improved so much last year, Mikal Bridges is outstanding and Paul is Paul? How could they not be climbing the offensive ranks when Paul and Devin Booker give them two of the best shot creators alive?
The depth on this team might not be drowning in experience, but it exists. Dario Saric-at-the-5 arrangements destroyed opponents in the bubble, and they're doing the same now. Cameron Payne has picked up where he left off at Disney. Staggering Booker and Paul so effectively mitigates any lingering concerns about the backup playmaking. Phoenix might not even peak until the postseason, when its two best players spend even more time together.
This isn't meant to suggest the Suns are a perfect team. They're not. But their unknowns are small potatoes, and you really have to strain your eyes to find them.
Settling on their volume at the rim feels right. Only the Orlando Magic take a smaller share of their shots at the basket, and Phoenix may not have the personnel for that to change. No one aside from a rolling Ayton and high-octane Payne puts consistent pressure on the hoop.
Subsisting on so many mid-range jumpers and threes can be high-variance. It'd be nice to see Booker get more aggressive off the dribble, particularly when he's playing without Paul; a career-low 20 percent of his looks are coming at the rim.
While this isn't unimportant, it's tough to get worked up over. Booker and Paul arm the Suns with two of the best in-between scorers; their shot profile is not unsustainable. If anything, their methodically, painstakingly slow pace and perimeter reliance better equips them to navigate the postseason crucible.
Portland Trail Blazers: Is the Defense Fixable?
Adding Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. over the offseason was supposed to give the Portland Trail Blazers a sturdier defense. It hasn't worked.
Portland is 29th in points allowed per possession and posting a 116.8 defensive rating (17th percentile) when Covington and Jones play together. Little about this looks fluky during games. Opponents aren't hitting an unfathomably high percentage of their threes or shots at the rim or grabbing an obscene amount of their own misses.
The Blazers just seem...slow. And porous.
Jusuf Nurkic hasn't looked right in the half-court. Head coach Terry Stotts is playing Carmelo Anthony, CJ McCollum and Enes Kanter entirely too much together. Put another away: He's playing them together at all—and often without both RoCo and DJJ. The result is what you'd expect: Portland getting lit the eff up from just about everywhere on the floor.
Nipping this in the bud might be outside the Blazers' control. Nurkic should get better. They can cut down on their fouls. They should not have the second-worst pick-and-roll defense in the league. But they just might not have the personnel to make dramatic strides. They're still not built to consistently contain dribble penetration, and a season-long drop-off from Nurkic is one their front line doesn't have the capacity to withstand.
Sacramento Kings: Is Marvin Bagley III Still Part of the Future?
If Marvin Bagley III's father, Marvin Bagley Jr., has his way, the answer to this question will be a resounding no. He requested the Sacramento Kings trade his son in a since-deleted tweet, because this is 2021, or whatever.
For his part, Bagley doesn't need this distraction. His future in Sacramento is less about his father's trade request, and the fact that he has not refuted it, and more about his play. He is having a tough go to start the season, averaging 12.1 points while hitting just 40 percent of his twos and posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1-to-3.
This choppy start was completely predictable. A broken thumb and dual foot sprains limited him to 13 appearances last season. He has played very little organized basketball over the past 14 months, and it takes time for the most polished veterans to get their bearings back, let alone a 21-year-old with barely 80 appearances to his name.
To his credit, Bagley provided a glimpse into the best version of himself during the Kings' Jan. 6 victory over the Chicago Bulls. He cleaned up misses on the offensive glass, finished lobs around the rim and buried three (wide-open) triples.
That display spelled out his ideal role: someone who amplifies the offense while playing within in the flow of it. But Sacramento is still trying to find out if Bagley can be more. It continues to allocate touches to him in the post and allows him to test his floor game. The results aren't great. He's shooting 29.4 percent on post-ups and not passing on those possessions nearly enough. And while he has great hands around the basket, his floor game lacks a change-of-direction of element.
Withstanding Bagley's jagged performances is worth the immediate opportunity cost if he's a big-picture mainstay. The Kings don't have enough evidence to deem him that, even after picking up his $11.3 million team option for 2021-22. And this is sort of the point: As it stands, Bagley is either an unknown or sunk investment. Sacramento is treating him like the former, because the latter, while a real possibility, would be too hard to stomach.
San Antonio Spurs: How Do They Navigate the Derrick White Injury?
Wondering how the San Antonio Spurs will deal with the absence of Derrick White seems silly. He only played in one game before fracturing the same left toe he had surgery on over the offseason. This is more like a return to normal.
Except it isn't. Not really. The Spurs had been operating under the assumption White would be back soon prior to his season debut. He represented a potential path out of both offensive and defensive mediocrity, providing a secondary creator who fits their attempt to push the ball after opponent misses and turnovers, and someone who can cover both guard spots and some wings.
Now he has no timetable for return, leaving the Spurs to, among other things, rely on DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray to initiate a lion's share of the offense. And as Pounding The Rock's Jesus Gomez noted, that could prompt a stylistic reversion:
"Under those circumstances, and with LaMarcus Aldridge now back, it could be tempting for the Spurs to revert back to playing slower. Since White is not going to be around to help stabilize the half-court offense, Gregg Popovich could decide to get Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan more touches in the spots they prefer, essentially leaning back into the attack the team has used in past years.
"After all, that offense performed well, and reinstalling it would allow Aldridge to avoid having to adjust to a more perimeter-oriented style of play. We saw how that would look in the win against the Clippers, when in the first and third quarters (when the starters played the most), the pace was glacial. Yet despite Tuesday's game being the slowest of the season for the Spurs, it was also their second-best offensive outing. There could be short-term benefits to playing like that.
If anything, White's indefinite absence should embolden the Spurs to lean deeper into the youth movement. Replace some of Rudy Gay's floor time with more Devin Vassell. Consider playing DeRozan like they have Aldridge—for 20 to 25 minutes per game instead of 30-plus. Saddle Keldon Johnson with more on-ball responsibility.
The Spurs might even find this is a more effective way to bide their time until White gets back. They shouldn't be deterred if it's not. They moved beyond living exclusively in the present during the bubble restart and should keep it that way.
Toronto Raptors: Will Pascal Siakam Put It Together?
The Toronto Raptors are off to an alarming-enough start that their biggest question mark needn't be so centralized.
Their offense is a slog. They don't put enough pressure on the rim outside of transition and aren't hitting nearly enough of their threes. Norman Powell has bordered on atrocious. It turns out Aron Baynes isn't the best three-point-shooting big in the world, like he was for the first month or so of last year, and that he should consider coating his hands in tree sap before each game. Chris Boucher is something like their third-best player this season.
Keep this up, and it is only a matter of time before inquiries into the Raptors get more profound. Should they blow it up? Will Kyle Lowry request a trade? What can they get for him? And what does a rebuild look like when they've already paid OG Anunoby (extension kicks in next year) and maxed out Pascal Siakam? Should they just say "Screw it" and go all-in on a James Harden trade? Do they even have the assets necessary to make that move following Siakam's ice-cold start?
That latter question hits upon what is actually most concerning about Toronto's immediate future: Siakam's play. The Raptors' entire direction hinges upon him developing into an All-NBA staple rather than a worse version of the lost-and-a-half player he was by the end of their 2020 playoff push.
Nobody else on the roster has a less favorable net-rating swing, and it isn't even close. That by and large tracks with what he's done the court. He is shooting 26.7 percent on above-the-break threes and 32.8 percent on all jumpers. The frequency with which he reaches the rim has dropped from last season's career low. His strong-side spins so often seem to take him nowhere. Teams are switching smaller players onto him without fear of consequences.
Strong showings in losses to the Boston Celtics (Jan. 4) and Phoenix Suns (Jan. 6) are encouraging. Siakam looked more like himself—someone capable of getting things done in space. The smart money is on his performance normalizing. But the Raptors must find ways to carve out more room for him to maneuver, both in the half-court and transition. Without it, he becomes easier to neutralize, and their immediate outlook remains murky.
Utah Jazz: Where Is the Consistency?
To be honest, this blurb could have been prewritten, like, months ago. Early-season Utah Jazz basketball always feels like a roller coaster. So much seems off, but then they figure it out, sort of, for the most part, basically.
This year is no different. The Jazz rank in the bottom half of both offensive and defensive efficiency. They're not finishing well at the rim. They're not getting to the free-throw line. They're generating corner threes, but shooting 29.2 percent on them, the worst mark in the league. They are committing too many turnovers.
Opponents are shooting an unsustainably high clip from deep (41.2 percent), but the Jazz's guards get too easily derailed by screens. They are hemorrhaging points when they allow teams out in transition; there is not a devout commitment to getting back after coughing up possession. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards have been outscored by more in the fourth quarter.
(Takes deep breath.)
They blew an 18-point lead against the New York Knicks on Jan. 6. They lost to a Brooklyn Nets team without Kevin Durant (or Spencer Dinwiddie) on Jan. 5. Slow starts from Bojan Bogdanovic and Donovan Mitchell cost them a winnable game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 26. Minutes without Rudy Gobert remain a disaster.
Utah is preaching patience. That's fair. The season is young. Many of these struggles aren't forever. The Jazz will get better defending in transition. Head coach Quin Snyder should get more creative with his rotations. It is nevertheless fair to ask questions in the meantime.
Did they tilt too far toward offense-first with how this roster? Will the no-Gobert minutes get better? Do they have enough athleticism on the wings? This stuff matters. Losses now can hurt Utah's postseason seeding later, and benefit of the doubt only lasts for so long.
Washington Wizards: What's Up with Russell Westbrook?
Harping on any aspect of the Washington Wizards offense rings a little hollow. Bradley Beal is still liable to go supernova, and they rank in the top 10 of points scored per possession despite suboptimal outside shooting from Davis Bertans and Beal himself.
Defense is their bigger problem. They're coaxing opposing offenses into a bunch of mid-range shots but getting torched from pretty much everywhere on the floor. Only the Golden State Warriors are fouling at a higher rate.
But the Wizards' defensive shortcomings are givens. This roster was not assembled to get stops. That they rank first in the opponents' expected effective field-goal percentage based on shot location is actually encouraging. It might be enough to carry Washington outside the bottom 10 of points allowed per possession. Might.
Russell Westbrook's early-season malaise is far more troubling, because of how drastically it goes against the grain. His 28.6 percent clip from beyond the arc is presumed, but his 42.9 percent shooting on twos would be the second-lowest mark of his career, and it comes at a time when he's reaching the rim substantially less.
Prior to this season, Westbrook had never taken fewer than 34 percent of his looks at the basket. Only 26 percent of his attempts are currently coming from point-blank range. After hitting 57 percent of his layups last season, he is down to 46.2 percent now.
Maybe this is a small-sample blip. Westbrook looks like less of a bur in transition and more inclined to settle for long twos and bail out on drives, but he's not yet 10 games into the schedule, and this is his second new team in as many seasons. He needs more time.
For the Wizards' sake, they better hope that's all he needs.