1 Question Still Haunting Every NBA Team This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2021

1 Question Still Haunting Every NBA Team This Season

0 of 30

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Almost the entire 2020-21 NBA regular season is in the books and teams still haven't discovered everything there is to know about themselves. They never do.

    Unanswered questions are ingrained into the professional sports experience. Even the best of the best have their share of unknowns. These unfinished matters will vary in scope and severity, but they are ubiquitous. No team is immune.

    It is not on us to provide solutions for all these problems. That will be part of the discussion, but we are responsible for only identifying the most impactful issue facing every franchise as they enter the regular season's closing kick.

    Selected questions will directly reflect each team's situation. Bigger-picture matters will rule the day for those who have nothing left to play for this season. Playoff dilemmas and recent developments will highlight squads competing for a title. Nothing, though, is off limits.

Atlanta Hawks: Will De'Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish Play Again This Season?

1 of 30

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    This question is actually an improvement for the Atlanta Hawks. They spent a lion's share of the season dealing with various injuries up and down the roster, particularly to start the year. De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish represent their final absentees.

    Which, er, isn't great.

    Both profile as mission critical to Atlanta's defensive survival. Reddish, for all his offensive woes, can be thrown up against most primary ball-handlers. Hunter, who was in the early running for Most Improved Player prior to his right knee injury, can handle bigger shot creators. Both can be used to track pinball shooters in the half-court.

    To their credit, the Hawks ares treading water without them. They are a not-good-not-terrible 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions for the season—and a pleasantly middling 15th since April 1. Clint Capela is a viable backline anchor. John Collins is no longer a dramatic liability. And Tony Snell can do juuust enough on the wings.

    But the current iteration of the starting five is still getting blasted at the less glamorous end, and Atlanta just doesn't have the perimeter depth to tussle with star assignments, even if it increases Kris Dunn's workload. Having at least one of Hunter and Reddish is a necessity. It also isn't a given. Hunter only recently played some 3-of-3, and Reddish (right achilles) has yet to resume on-court activity.

Boston Celtics: Can Kemba Still Be Kemba?

2 of 30

    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Much of the uncertainty plaguing the Boston Celtics is beyond their immediate control. Injuries and COVID-19 have chipped away at their collective availability, creating concerns that usurp the shallower, seemingly slapdash supporting cast the front office assembled around its primaries.

    Yet, even by those standards, pinpointing the Boston Celtics' third-best player on a game-to-game basis has turned into waaay more of a crapshoot than it should be for a team with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker.

    Brown and Tatum are holding up their end of the bargain. Walker, on the other hand, has devolved into a question mark. A left knee injury delayed his season debut until the middle of January and has precluded him from playing both ends of back-to-backs, and he most recently lost five games to a strained left oblique.

    When he actually plays, the results are a mixed bag. He remains Boston's second-most reliable from-scratch scorer but is noticeably less reliable within that context. Walker is canning under 35 percent of his off-the-dribble threes for the first time since 2015-16, and both the share of his shots coming at the rim and his free-throw-attempt rate are at all-time lows.

    Nothing overly sinister reveals itself when looking at the Celtics' vitals. They are 10th in offense and 13th in defense. But there is a level of fragility to their operation. They are 25h in the frequency with which they reach the rim and 27th in free-throw-attempt rate. Only the Portland Trail Blazers lean on pull-up jumpers more.

    Scoring in the half-court won't get any easier against postseason defenses, and Boston isn't tracking toward a favorable first-round matchup unless it graduates from the six- and seven-seed races. Walker is pivotal to sustaining the current offensive dynamic. If he can't put together protracted stretches of typical Kemba basketball, the Celtics' path out of the first round, let alone the Eastern Conference, will be winding and steep and, potentially, impossible to navigate.

Brooklyn Nets: What Will the Big 3 Look Like?

3 of 30

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Questions about the Brooklyn Nets' defense (will their switching help out in the playoffs?) and frontcourt rotation (who's playing at the 5 in crunch time?) should be taking center stage. Should be. But it's hard to focus on anything else beyond the availability and synergy between Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving when they've appeared in a jarringly low seven games together.

    Sure, there is an element of "Who the hell cares? It's KD, Harden and Kyrie. They'll be fine." at play here. The Nets have an offensive rating of 126.4 with all three on the floor, over which time they're outscoring opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions.

    All the "ThEy OnLy HaVe OnE bAlL" slants carry little weight when Harden has reveled in running point, and when KD's megastardom is infinitely scalable, the kind that allows him to stumble into 30-plus points without dominating the ball. But formations of this magnitude can take time, and the dynamic between Brooklyn's superstars remains unfamiliar by virtue of their tiny sample size.

    This says nothing of the health concerns. Durant has missed time with right Achilles, left hamstring and thigh issues. The Nets have clearly taken the overly cautious route with his absences, but the fact he missed last season because of that right Achilles has to be top-of-mind.

    Harden, meanwhile, hasn't played since April 5 while dealing with a right hamstring injury. Though he plans to return before the playoffs, he already suffered one setback in his rehab, and the regular season is rapidly approaching conclusion.

    Maybe this extra time off will serve Harden well. He has carried the NBA's heaviest regular-season workload for, approximately, forever. It could also take him time to ramp back up. That type of grace period is less than ideal in the playoffs, even if Brooklyn's first-round matchup comes versus a gimme opponent.

    Do not underestimate the importance of a full-strength Harden. He is the Nets' offensive intercessor, the one who will be tasked with most of the initiation and possession delineation when all three stars are on the floor. Brooklyn is now just 7-8 when KD and Kyrie play without him. 

    Is he immaterial? Perhaps. Worth monitoring? Definitely.

Charlotte Hornets:

4 of 30

    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Feel free to roll with the potential return of Gordon Hayward from a right ankle sprain or Miles Bridges' current stint in the league's health and safety protocols, and how both impact the Charlotte Hornets' postseason chances. But this team is exceeding expectations relative to the injuries they've suffered by cracking the play-in tournament.

    Focusing on the center position better aligns with our mission. It is both an immediate and long-term concern.

    Small-ball continues to be the preference of head coach James Borrego, though various absences have at times forced his hand. PJ Washington has basically a 50-50 timeshare at the 4 and 5 spots, and Charlotte is noticeably vested in lineups more equipped to switch, a penchant that has come at the expense of minutes for Cody Zeller (when he's healthy).

    Five-man combos with Washington at center have held up surprisingly well this season. Their 111 defensive rating ranks inside the 69th percentile among five-man units that have logged at least 15 possessions. Using Bridges at power forward has been the overwhelming go-to in those situations, but Charlotte is stingier across the smaller sample size it has racked up with Hayward or Jalen McDaniels in his stead.

    With neither Bridges nor Hayward available to slot at the 4, the immediate viability of this setup is in jeopardy. Crashing the defensive glass will only get harder during these stretches in the interim. Their familiarity with switching could give the Hornets, however healthy, a postseason bump, as Matt Moore expertly unpacked for Action Network.

    The long-term application of this model is a separate matter. Will Washington continue to log as much time at the 5? Will he see even more time in the middle? Will Charlotte use its projected $20-plus million in cap space to sign a higher-end big? Richaun Holmes, perhaps? Will the Vernon Carey Jr. experiment be revived next year? This year?

    Getting a feel for how Washington-at-the-5 fares in the playoffs should go a long way. So, too, will hashing out the futures of others on the roster. Charlotte may be less inclined to spend big—or, for that matter, go big—up front if it re-signs both Devonte' Graham (restricted) and Malik Monk (restricted) and doesn't ship out any of its other guards. We'll have to wait and see.

Chicago Bulls: Is Zach LaVine Here for the Long Haul?

5 of 30

    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Please do not spin this question as a harbinger of Zach LaVine's discontent or the Chicago Bulls' view of him. Both sides are clearly trying to make their partnership work over the long haul.

    Chicago doesn't fork over Wendell Carter Jr. and two top-four-protected first-round picks to get Nikola Vucevic if it's not a big-picture believer in LaVine. And it most certainly doesn't make that deal without gauging his interest in remaining with the team.

    Still, the Bulls may have played their best hand a little too soon. Their path to title contention gets more dicey without (too many) extra first-rounders to trade if one of their youngsters—namely Patrick Williams and Coby White—doesn't develop into a star.

    Right now, Chicago is also in that woefully unenviable position of hovering outside the Eastern Conference's play-in picture yet obligated to send its first-rounder to Orlando. With the postseason effectively out of reach, its ideal scenario now consists of jumping into the top four of the draft, a leap they would, as of now, have a 31.9 percent of making. Pushing forward with LaVine, Vooch, White, Williams and a top-four prospect from this draft amounts to a pretty rosy situation.

    None of this does anything to change LaVine's contract situation, though. He is eligible for an extension this summer, but the Bulls can only offer him a 20 percent raise off his current salary. He stands to make appreciably more if he waits until 2022 free agency.

    Renegotiating and extending LaVine's deal—which would result in a raise to the max salary for next season—is on the table, but Chicago burned a chunk of its cap space by taking on Vooch's multiyear contract. Its spending power is now firmly tethered to what it does with partially guaranteed pacts for Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young, along with the fate of its first-round pick.

    Failing to lock down LaVine long term isn't necessarily a death knell for this relationship. But it does give more time for things to wrong. And if the Bulls aren't en route to title contention by next summer, the ability to offer LaVine richer raises and a fifth year may not be enough to keep him in town.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Do They Have Their North Star?

6 of 30

    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Pointing out the Cleveland Cavaliers' absence of an obvious superstar-type cornerstone has become cliche. That doesn't make it disingenuous—or wrong.

    On the bright side, the Cavaliers might be closer to having one than most realize. It just might not be who everyone thinks it needs to be.

    Collin Sexton has turned into scorer du jour. Only eight other players are averaging more than 24 points while matching his efficiency on twos and threes. Just two of them—Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Durant—do so with a higher free-throw-attempt rate.

    And yet, limits will always be placed on teams with a primary scorer who is not an inarguable net-positive playmaker. Sexton has improved his passing over the past year-plus, but teammates still grow weary of his on-ball decision-making, per The Athletic's Joe Vardon.

    Building around him gets a lot harder if belief in him isn't universal throughout the organization. Looming over all this is his next contract, as well. He is extension-eligible this summer. Cleveland has one year before he gets super expensive.

    Darius Garland might actually be better cast as the Cavaliers' north star. He is more of a natural table-setter and has honed his off-the-dribble decision-making since Year 1. In the 22 games prior to his left ankle injury, he was averaging 20.6 points and 6.8 assists while exhibiting better control over the offense and hitting 41.6 percent of his threes, including 38.6 percent of his pull-up treys.

    Neither Sexton nor Garland (can he stay healthy enough?) are sure things within this discussion. And Cleveland doesn't have alternatives after them. Jarrett Allen is a defensive anchor, not a No. 1 option. Isaac Okoro exists in that same vein, though he has flashed feel-good moments in the pick-and-roll and as a driver.

    The Cavs best crack at finding their guiding force might be in the draft. They presently have a 42.7 percent chance of bagging a top-four pick and 50.3 percent shot at a top-five selection. And if the answer isn't found in this year's rookie class, then the Garland-or-Sexton conversation takes on even more meaning.

Dallas Mavericks: How Close Are They to Title Contention?

7 of 30

    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Luka Doncic plus a sufficient supporting cast gives the Dallas Mavericks a puncher's chance in just about any playoff series. They may not be favored over the course of seven games against everyone, or even anyone, but the road to winning four times in seven tries is never entirely blocked off.

    Taking that next step is, arguably, the most difficult transition in the NBA. Perils and pitfalls abound in the path from good to great. Chief among them is a sense of urgency, a fast-moving timeline that can cause certain teams to act impulsively, expending assets on the wrong players because they have an obligation to make the leap into genuine championship contention yesterday.

    Dallas will need to use this postseason as a litmus test for its non-Doncic cast members. Players like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Richardson (player option) will be up for new contracts over the summer. Jalen Brunson, perhaps the Mavs' second-best player this season, will follow suit if the team makes him a restricted free agent rather than guarantee his salary and risk his entering unrestricted free agency in 2022.

    And then there's Kristaps Porzingis. He has three years left on his deal, but his time in Dallas has been marked by checkered availability and, for the most part, roller coaster play. If the Mavs did gauge his value on the trade market—something team governor Mark Cuban denied—it suggests they're no longer convinced he can be the No. 2 on a title squad.

    That Porzingis dilemma persists even if Dallas didn't shop him. The Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll is a nightmare to cover, but he's yet to string together a stretch long enough to prove he's second-best-player-on-a-championship-team material. A strong playoff performance, like the one he was on track to have last year before getting injured, would put much of the concern to bed.

    Moving forward as if Porzingis is the right sidekick for Doncic allows the Mavericks to futz and fiddle on the margins. A third star would be nice, but not necessary. They could focus on keeping Brunson and Hardaway, taking a wait-and-see approach with Richardson and adding mid-tier shot creation and wing defense.

    Everything changes if they decide Porzingis isn't the second in command they need. At the very least, it forces them to be ultra-aggressive this offseason, their last before Doncic will be on a supermax salary. Whereas they might be able to zero in on the Will Bartons (player option) of free agency, anything less than total belief in Porzingis urges them to go harder after a Kyle Lowry, maybe even a DeMar DeRozan, if not an alternative-star trade.

Denver Nuggets: Is Michael Porter Jr. Ready to Be a Playoff Superstar?

8 of 30

    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Jamal Murray's torn left ACL initially looked like it would obliterate the Denver Nuggets' title chances. They're doing their damnedest to prove they're still in the thick of the Larry O'Brien Trophy hunt.

    Various other injuries could push the Nuggets to the brink. Will Barton (hamstring), P.J. Dozier (adductor) and Monte Morris (hamstring) are all on the shelf. Denver is currently relying on Shaq Harrison and Austin Rivers to give them crucial rotation minutes.

    Nikola Jokic will always inoculate the Nuggets against complete disaster. He is the deserving runaway MVP favorite and, equally important, one of the clutchest players alive. He is faster than ever and has shown he can scurry past defenders from the outside-in during high-stakes moments, and his somber shuffle remains unguardable. DeMar DeRozan is the only player who has made more buckets in the final two minutes of one-possession games.

    Granted, that is not an end-all. The Nuggets need more than Jokic going kaboom to squeak past the Western Conference's heavyweights. Murray gave them that more conventional tough shot-maker from the perimeter in addition to Jokic. Someone needs to fill that exact role.

    Michael Porter Jr. is Denver's only hope. He fits a different kind of prototype: a center-sized wing who can attack like a guard and shoot over the top of anyone.

    His performance since Murray's injury has been mostly encouraging. He's averaging 24.3 points while downing 64 percent of his twos and nearly 50 percent of his threes. But he's not quite checking the self-creation box.

    Just under 22 percent of his made buckets are going unassisted during this stretch, up from 20.4 percent beforehand. Denver will need that number to climb if Porter is going to be the second best player on this version of its title contender.

Detroit Pistons: Is There a Viable No. 1 Option on the Team?

9 of 30

    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Jerami Grant's ascent from complementary marksman and finisher to more comprehensive scorer continues to be a nice development, even as he labors through injuries and receding efficiency. But he is not the type of playmaker who is going to elevate those around him, and a 28.4 usage rate on 55.6 true shooting is not the mark of a primary offensive engine.

    After him, the Detroit Pistons aren't flush with potential No. 1 options to groom for the future. Killian Hayes comes closest, an assessment rooted more in his youth and stylistic approach than the results to date.

    That's fine. Rookies are unfinished projects. Even the best of them traffic in the theoretical. And Hayes has an adequate excuse for the breadth of his unknownness. Right hip issues cost him most of the year; he doesn't even have 25 appearances to his name.

    What little court time Hayes has seen isn't enough to render profound verdicts. He has, however, tantalized in spurts. He is crafty when getting defenders on his hip, exudes patience in traffic and has tossed some artful passes. His efficiency from the field is, for now, only a mild concern. He will stop settling for so many floaters and premature takeoffs in time.

    Beyond Hayes and Grant, the Pistons have nothing—not in the sense they're devoid of long-term keepers. They have those. But they don't have another viable No. 1 possibility. Their best shot at getting him will be in the draft. Maintain their current spot as the league's second-worst team, and they'll have nearly an 80 percent chance of landing inside the top five of the lottery and procuring one of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs.

Golden State Warriors: What Does This Season Say About the Future?

10 of 30

    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Every team in the league—and throughout the course of NBA history—would kill to have present-day Steph Curry on their roster. His is a brand of dominance achieved only when lava courses through your veins. The Golden State Warriors are surviving the play-in fracas entirely because of him, and he is nuking any notions that he can no longer be the alpha on a championship squad in the process.

    That's the good news. It's also, in a way, the bad news. 

    Curry's volcanic eruptions are the status quo, and yet, the Warriors are still so very far away from recapturing authentic title form. Non-Steph minutes, in particular, have been their undoing. Their offensive rating nosedives by 16 points per 100 possessions when he's off the court, the single largest swing for every player who has tallied at least 250 total minutes. And their effective field-goal percentage plunges by 7.6 percentage points without him, the third-fattest shift going right now.

    Klay Thompon's return will not rescue the Warriors from their precarious position on its own. He is coming back from ACL and Achilles tears and has never been utilized as a high-volume square-one shot creator. Golden State feels no fewer than one player short of championship contention even if we assume Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and James Wiseman all stay healthy.

    Will the Minnesota Timberwolves' pick (top-three protection) net them a prospect who checks that box? A rookie capable of meaningfully contributing to a title contender is a tall ask. Should they just trade the pick? Who can they get for it? And, hell, will they even get the pick itself?

    Nothing out there suggests Curry plans to be anything other than a Warriors lifer. But he's extension-eligible and scheduled for free agency in 2022. His plans could change if the Warriors don't.

Houston Rockets: Will They Keep Their First-Round Pick?

11 of 30

    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    We could visit Dullsville (population: unknown) and discuss whether the Houston Rockets have their polestar building block. But, eh. Let's agree our time is more valuable.

    Houston's roster isn't quite a transient property. Kevin Porter Jr., Jae'Sean Tate and Christian Wood have all shown enough to work their way into the long haul. Not one of them, though, forecasts as the best player on an outright or fringe contender.

    That player is more likely to arrive via the draft. More specifically, the Rockets will most likely select him using one of their own picks.

    They control the Brooklyn Nets' draft through 2027, but it will be a few years before those first-rounders settle into building-block territory, if they ever actually do. Houston is bound to finish near the bottom of the standings for the next couple of years, rendering the most valuable picks its own.

    The Rockets just have to keep them first. That won't be a problem in 2022 and 2023, when they control their own first-rounders free and clear. This season, when they can guarantee they'll be bad, because they are bad? Not so much.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder can swap what will be the Miami Heat's pick for Houston's first if it lands outside the top four—which it might. The Rockets are doing their part to ensure it does not. They have the league's worst record by a fairly comfortable margin. But that only gives them a 52.1 percent chance of netting a top-four selection versus a 47.9 percent shot at falling to No. 5.

    Yes, technically the odds are in their favor. They're also almost a coin toss in the other direction. And while keeping this year's pick doesn't have to be the difference between a bright outlook and all-consuming hopelessness, losing it would cost the Rockets a prime opportunity to add a singular talent around whom they can structure their rebuild.

Indiana Pacers: Can This Team Be Salvaged?

12 of 30

    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    This space initially included some musings and numbers on the Indiana Pacers' ductile defensive approach and its subsequent failure to date. But then the smoke already emanating from their house mutated into a raging inferno.

    Inconsistent, ineffective and utterly confusing defensive decisions, along with many other matters of actual basketball, should be front and center. Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper, the best in the biz at identifying and explaining functional nuances, went through what's plaguing them most on the court.

    Off the court, this team appears to be teetering on the edge of implosion. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski first reported rookie head coach Nate Bjorkgren was on the hot seat. Soon thereafter, assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated exchange with Goga Bitadze during Indiana's Wednesday night loss to Sacramento. Foster was suspended for a game; Bitadze was fined.

    Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer then detailed Bjorkgren's turbulent tenure from start to what, right now, looks like the finish. His entire report deserves a read. The main takeaway: Sources painted a bleak picture behind the scenes fueled by a lack of due research into Bjorkgren's background prior to his hire.

    Optimists can point to a season wrecked by injuries and this hellscape of a soap opera. For all the Pacers' struggles, they have a roster teeming with above-replacement-level players, and what projects as their best five-man unit—Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner—hasn't seen a second of action. They can run it back with a different coach and reasonably hope for much better results.

    Who is that coach, though? Mike D'Antoni? Someone else? And who will be making that hire? Will either team president Kevin Pritchard or general manager Chad Buchanan lose his job when all's told?

    Can Indiana retain TJ McConnell and Doug McDermott without cannonballing into a luxury tax they surely won't pay? Has the Bjorkgren soap opera disenchanted any key players beyond repair? Is one of those players Warren, who's slated for free agency in 2022? The Pacers have a lot to munch on as they prepare for what looks like a ceremonial stay in the NBA's play-in tournament.

Los Angeles Clippers: Do They Get to the Basket Enough?

13 of 30

    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    This is what we call a 1 percenter problem.

    It may also no longer be a problem.

    Harping on the Los Angeles Clippers' perimeter-dependent shot profile feels fair when looking at the season in sum. They are 26th in the share of their shots that come at the rim—basement volume owed, in part, to the addition of a floor-spreading center like Serge Ibaka and the departure of Montrezl Harrell, a downhill big man.

    Whether this warrants serious angst in a vacuum is debatable. The Clippers have the league's best offense. Their efficiency is only untenable if you don't think their flame-throwing from beyond the arc will continue, or if you think Paul George and Kawhi Leonard's tough jumpers will stop finding nylon.

    Splitting hairs is part and parcel of evaluating contenders. Anything remotely imperfect about the Clippers is noteworthy, including the availability of Ibaka, who hasn't played since March 14 while dealing with a back injury. But his absence has also helped buoy their volume at the rim. They are a rock-solid 13th in the percentage of looks coming at the rim over this span, which also overlaps with the addition of Rajon Rondo.

    Coincidence? Maybe. The Clippers are down to 17th in free-throw-attempt rate since Ibaka exited the rotation, an odd development given their extra volume at the rim. But Leonard, their leader in freebies per 36 minutes, missed time with a right foot injury. They also traded their No. 2 foul-line presence, Lou Williams, to Atlanta shortly after Ibaka's injury.

    This is all a roundabout way of saying the Clippers' perceived biggest flaw no longer seems as large. But it's still worth tracking as they inch their way toward full strength and more of their 5-man minutes go to Ibaka.

Los Angeles Lakers: Are They Play-In Tournament-Bound?

14 of 30

    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Imagine asking this question before the start of the season with a straight face.

    Extended absences from Anthony Davis and LeBron James are behind the Los Angeles Lakers' dalliance with the play-in tournament. That's encouraging if only because there's a concrete explanation. They'll be fine if Davis and LeBron remain healthy.

    That's apparently a gigantic if. LeBron played in just two games after missing 20 before vacating the rotation once more. Davis has been less-than-awesome on offense following his return from a right calf/Achilles strain and suffered a back injury that forced him out of the Lakes' Thursday night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. He hopes not to miss any more time, and head coach Frank Vogel said LeBron's most recent DNPs weren't "medically related," but still: Yeesh.

    Absences from the Lakers' two stars aren't the end of it, either. The roster is banged up nearly beyond comprehension, and Dennis Schroder, their third-most important player, remains in the league's health and safety protocols.

    Stumbling into the play-in tournament now feels like a legit possibility. The Lakers are in seventh, a full game behind the Portland Trail Blazers.

    "So what?" you might be asking. The Lakers won't lose two consecutive games and miss the postseason, and a play-in cameo pretty much guarantees they avoid the Clippers right off the bat. Fair points. But their path back to the Finals is getting increasingly complicated. Adding a potential one-game matchup with the Golden State Warriors—who, for all their faults, have Stephen friggin' Curry—onto a playoff bracket that may already demand they go through three of the Clippers, Denver, Phoenix and Utah is a special kind of ridiculous.

    Coming off the shortest offseason in sports history, the Lakers need all the good breaks they can get. Failing that, they could at least stand to avoid the longest road possible back to the Finals.

Memphis Grizzlies: Is the Justise Winslow Experiment Salvageable?

15 of 30

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Justise Winslow finally made his debut for the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 20 after missing all of last season with a lower-back injury and then battling left hip issues. (He has since also spent time on the sidelines with a right thigh problem.) The results of his return thus far have been underwhelming.

    Learning curves are the expectation whenever a player misses this much time, and Winslow retains the defensive flair he sported in Miami. But his offense is a problem. He's knocking down just 41.3 percent of his twos and 12.5 percent of his threes and posting an effective field-goal percentage of only 25.7 on spot-up jumpers.

    Plopping him beside Ja Morant gets thorny over the long haul if those outside looks aren't falling. The Grizzlies have hung tough with both on the court, but most of the Morant-Winslow reps have come as part of bench-heavy units. There will be more overlap and a higher level of competition if Memphis ever wants to promote Winslow to the starting five or even just increase his minutes.

    Onset awkwardness isn't enough evidence for the Grizzlies to decline Winslow's $13 million team option. They might as well pick it up. He just turned 25 in March, and this year's free-agency market isn't worth dredging up additional flexibility.

    Winslow's offensive struggles—and recent DNPs—are more troubling when viewed through the lens of what Memphis hoped he'd be: its primary two-way wing of the future. He may yet carve out a meaningful role on this team, but those initial expectations are on life support.

Miami Heat: Do They Have a Playoff Switch

16 of 30

    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last year, the Miami Heat played to their peak at the right time, exploding inside the Disney Bubble en route to a Finals appearance. They're about to find out whether that same switch is available to them now.

    "You want to be playing your best basketball at the right time," Jimmy Butler said, per the Miami Herald's Anthony Chiang. "And I'm praying, I'm hoping that right now is the right time for us to being playing our best basketball."

    His hope might be panning out. The Heat are starting to get their act together on the offensive end. After ranking 23rd in points scored per 100 possessions and 20th in effective field-goal percentage through the end of March, they are 12th and seventh, respectively, since April 1. Their three-point shooting has trended up, and they have been one of the league's most dangerous teams on the break.

    It doesn't take much to convince yourself the Heat have turned a corner. Explaining away their struggles was always pretty easy. A bunch of players have missed significant time, including Butler, Goran Dragic and, currently, Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo. Another gear feels attainable at full strength.

    Then again, the Heat's struggles aren't solely the byproduct of bad luck. Herro's efficiency is down, and Dragic hasn't been nearly as impactful when healthy. They will struggle to put pressure on the rim during the playoffs beyond Butler's attacks if transition opportunities aren't available to them and Oladipo remains on the sidelines. Their recent offensive rise has also coincided with a defensive drop-off.

    Miami won't have any time to catch its breath as the season winds down, either. It's on track for a play-in appearance and, in all likelihood, matched up against Brooklyn, Milwaukee or Philadelphia in Round 1. Sweeping verdicts cannot be rendered if the Heat lose to one of them. Those are really good teams. But the fight they put up will be more telltale of their proximity to title contention than their Finals run from last season.

Milwaukee Bucks: Will Regular-Season Exploration Pay off in the Playoffs?

17 of 30

    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Consecutive dominant regular seasons followed by a pair of uninspiring playoff exits necessitated a calculus change for the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Augmenting the top of their roster with the addition of Jrue Holiday, the league's best two-way guard, was part of it. The rest came down to treating the regular season as a means to self-exploration.

    Milwaukee has taken that responsibility to heart. It has switched more on defense. It has dabbled in zone. It reworked the geometry of the offense by placing someone in the dunker's spot.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is throwing more complicated passes on the move. He is screening more. The acquisition of PJ Tucker implies a certain commitment to Giannis-at-the-5 arrangements when it matters most, even if the sample size and results don't quite support it.

    Expanding your on-court identity is never a bad thing, but this futzing and fiddling and general open-mindedness has just one endgame. The Bucks cannot spin another second-round exit—or dispirited Eastern Conference Finals appearance—as progress. Head coach Mike Budenholzer's seat will catch fire if that's what this postseason has in store.

    By virtue of greater functional variety, Milwaukee seems more dangerous, even with Antetokounmpo's outside range perpetually fickle. The only way to find out for sure, though, is to play the games.

Minnesota Timberwolves: What Happens with Their First-Round Pick?

18 of 30

    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Rollicking late-season finishes must always be viewed with a heaping dose of skepticism. Schedule quirks are implanted into the final stretch. The play-in tournament hasn't changed that—not amid a season truncated and warped by a global pandemic.

    Consider this a warning for whatever the Minnesota Timberwolves might do between now and year's end. They have already tumbled off cloud nine following the end of their recent four-game win streak. For as much as a base of Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Malik Beasley and, yes, Jaden McDaniels tantalizes, Minnesota still carries the league's third-worst record.

    Championship contention isn't just around the corner. The Timberwolves don't even really know what they have in their current nucleus. Injuries have limited the Beasley-Edwards-Russell-Towns quartet to a 26-possession sample size. And that's where it'll finish unless Beasley returns from his left hamstring strain soon.

    This mystery-box element works in Minnesota's favor. The core can't be deemed a wash when it's never been intact. But that also means the Timberwolves can't just assume they're on the right track. Their best-case scenario still includes their being one major player away from leaving a dent in the Western Conference.

    Netting another building block is never easy, and Minnesota's pursuit is complicated by the top-three-protected pick it owes to Golden State. Convey it this season, and the Timberwolves will be restricted in the additions they can make. They won't have cap space, and bringing in another marquee player via trade will demand surrendering equity beyond just future first-rounders.

    Retain the pick, and the Timberwolves have an interesting, if enviable, dilemma on their hands: Do they simply add one of the top-three prospects from this draft and stay the course, hoping to straddle both an immediate and long-term timeline that, in actuality, prioritizes the latter? Or do they consider using a top-three selection as the centerpiece in a trade for another marquee player?

    Ahead of this draft, the latter sentiment might seem bonkers. But the Timberwolves aren't operating on a gradual timeline. Acquiring Russell was a win-now play, and they've already reinvested in Beasley and Towns. The urgency they've prescribed themselves demands they consider every possible angle, and the range of moves they actually have to contemplate this offseason begins and ends with the fate of their first-round pick.

New Orleans Pelicans: Can They Perfect the Rebuild Around Zion?

19 of 30

    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Losing Zion Williamson indefinitely to a fractured left ring finger fries the New Orleans Pelicans' play-in hopes. They can turn their attention entirely to the bigger picture—which, despite various issues cropping up this season, retains its sheen.

    Unleashing Zion as the primary offensive attacker has provided the Pelicans with a blueprint. They must now perfect it. Defenses remain overmatched against Zion's general one-of-one skill set, but riding him has its limits, and New Orleans has started to run him into them. It ranks 23rd in half-court efficiency since the middle of March—and 27th since April 1.

    At least part of that slide is circumstantial. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart missed time during this stretch, and both are pivotal to preserving the Pelicans' floor balance. That's kind of the point. They need to shield themselves against a razor-thin margin for error from beyond the arc. They are 25th in three-point-attempt rate and 27th in long-range efficiency for the season.

    Calling for the Pelicans to surround Zion with more shooters is an oversimplification of their problems. They need more volume just as much as they need better accuracy. Both will go a long way toward diminishing their reliance on getting out in transition.

    Opening more room in the half court trounces even their defensive struggles. They have crawled closer to league average since playing more drop, as Shamit Dua explained in detail for Bourbon Street Shots. That approach is unsustainable versus select flamethrowers, but it gives New Orleans structure, rhyme and reason to how its playing.

    Perfecting the personnel around Zion is, of course, easier in theory than practice. The Pelicans don't forecast as a cap-space team over the summer; they'll have to be worried about the luxury tax if they wind up matching offer sheets for both Lonzo and Hart in restricted free agency. Short of striking gold on the clearance rack, they need to see what's available to them on the trade market. It doesn't have to be a blockbuster; it just has to be something that better equips them to thrive with Zion as the focal point.

New York Knicks: How Much Do They Read into This Season?

20 of 30

    Elsa/Associated Press

    Let's make one thing clear: The 2020-21 New York Knicks are good. They have already clinched their first winning season since 2012-13 and are on the verge of snagging their first playoff berth in just as many years.

    Only two teams have a better net rating since April 1, a standing New York has propped up amid an unwished-for schedule. Julius Randle is burying ridiculously difficult step-back jumpers and spearheading a vastly improved offense. RJ Barrett is officially a two-way player. Nerlens Noel eats dunk attempts for breakfast. Reggie Bullock is among the most underrated wings in the league.

    Derrick Rose has been a revelation. RJ-plus-bench units are frisky. The Knicks remain top-five in defense. Alec Burks is drilling 44.3 percent of his off-the-bounce triples. Immanuel Quickley has outer-space range, a feathery floater and a budding blow-by game.

    Fans should, and are, and deserve to, celebrate this rise. Skeptics should accept it.

    Everyone should be open to acknowledging it complicates New York's future.

    Randle's extension eligibility is just one part of the equation—and an increasingly small one. If the Knicks can get him for the 20 percent max raise they can offer on this season's salary, they shouldn't think twice. His LeBron James-esque stat lines do not happen on accident, not for this long, not even in a season that warrants one gargantuan asterisk.

    Evaluating the rest of the roster gets tougher. Bullock, Burks, Noel and Rose (and Elfrid Payton) are all free agents this summer. Ditto for Frank Ntilikina (restricted). Mitchell Robinson could join them as a restricted free agent if the team declines his club option. The Knicks have the gobs of cap space necessary to keep everyone—they don't have Bird rights on Burks or Noel—but how much can they justify reinvesting in a core that, while impressive, doesn't ferry them close enough to title contention?

    Navigating this issue gets easier if everyone involved is open to signing inflated short-term deals. What if they aren't? Do the Knicks have the stomach to take a step back? Can they use their cap space to poach an impact player, such as Lonzo Ball (restricted)? Or leverage some of their draft equity, prospects and cap space into the next disgruntled star?

    Postseason basketball won't provide all of the answers, but it should give the Knicks a better sense of where they stand relative to the East's elite and how aggressive they should be in doubling down on this year.

Oklahoma City Thunder: How Many Long-Term Keeps Are on the Roster?

21 of 30

    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    Between trading their veterans, giving Al Horford extended PTO and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's torn plantar fascia in his right foot, the Oklahoma City Thunder have spent a large chunk of the season in talent-evaluation mode.

    General manager Sam Presti has, in turn, been lauded for the number of team-controlled fliers with which he's stacked the roster. Now comes the hard part: figuring out who fits into the picture next season and beyond.

    That's not an especially taxing spot in which to be on the surface. But winnowing down the field can be difficult when so many players are intriguing. And the Thunder have no shortage of fringe-future prospects. Just look at their leaders in total minutes since April 1:

    • Theo Maledon (544)
    • Darius Bazley (449)
    • Svi Mykhailiuk (435)
    • Kenrich Williams (433)
    • Moses Brown (422)
    • Ty Jerome (400)
    • Aleksej Pokusevski (348)
    • Isaiah Roby (333)
    • Tony Bradley (296)
    • Luguentz Dort (294)

    Among these 10 players, only five—Bazley, Maledon, Jerome, Pokusevski, Dort—are under guaranteed contract for next season. (Dort's is actually non-guaranteed, but he's not going anywhere.) The Thunder cannot reasonably bring everyone else back. Even if they let prospective free agents walk (Bradley, Mykhailiuk), they still have a surfeit of non-guarantees, plus two inbound first-round picks and SGA's money.

    They will also, in all likelihood, need multiple roster spots to facilitate a Horford trade. Finding someone to absorb his $27 million salary while sending back no more than one player would be a minor miracle. And with the option of chiseling out $60-plus million in cap space, you have to imagine they'll sign someone(s) not already on the roster.

    Rosters spots start flying off the shelves pretty quickly when taking a bird's eye view of the Thunder's offseason. They have the maneuverability to essentially run it back, but idleness is for finished products. Tough decisions—and surprise trades—could await anyone who isn't SGA, Bazley, Dort or Poku.

Orlando Magic: What Kind of a Rebuild Is This?

22 of 30

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Orlando Magic made the right decision by stripping down their roster at the trade deadline. They weren't escaping the treadmill of mundanity by holding onto Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. Dealing them for a mix of interesting young players (Wendell Carter Jr., R.J. Hampton) and draft equity gives them an opportunity to rebuild toward something better.

    So now what?

    Do the Magic slog through a couple of loss-loaded seasons in hopes of unearthing that superstar cornerstone? Do they view Jonathan Isaac, who has missed the entire season with a torn left ACL, as their face of the franchise? Does having extended him and Markelle Fultz incentivize them to make this more of a retool than a rebuild?

    Tilting toward the latter opens the Magic up to more of the same. Billing Isaac, who so far profiles as a play-finisher on offense, as their north star would feel like the team was consigning itself to the middle. Authoring a successful insta-turnaround requires some luck in the draft lottery.

    At the same time, the Magic aren't really built to be absolutely terrible when they have all their bodies. A core of Carter, Fultz, Hampton (related: whoa!), Isaac, Mo Bamba, Chuma Okeke, Cole Anthony, Terrence Ross, their own first and, potentially, Chicago's first-rounder (top-four protection) isn't contending for titles but includes enough proven and semi-knowable depth to scrap inside the belly of the East.

    Orlando might need to more aggressively sell if attempting a gradual reset. That doesn't just include shopping veterans like Ross and Gary Harris. It entails gauging the market for Carter (extension-eligible), Fultz and even Isaac.

    That's not to say this is what the Magic will do. They probably won't. But the notion speaks to the fragility of their situation. Shipping out their best players didn't chart a course for the next few years. It merely solidified how they would finish this one.

Philadelphia 76ers: Does the Half-Court Offense Have Enough Juice?

23 of 30

    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Though Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are finally surrounded by a supporting cast that complements both their collective strengths and weaknesses, the prospective limitations on the Philadelphia 76ers are the same as ever.

    "Can they generate enough offense when things bog down?" is both a tired question and one that must continue to be lodged until it's answered in the affirmative during a playoff series. And while Philly's regular-season showing hasn't rendered this an open-and-shut case, the indicators are as encouraging.

    The Sixers rank 14th in half-court efficiency for the year and are ninth since April 1. The absence of a traditional crunch-time hub will rankle some, but the idea that Embiid somehow won't be enough in high-leverage moments is sort of laughable.

    He is a free-throw machine, even in those situations, and has honed the perimeter game of a more orthodox clutch option. He is shooting 46.7 percent on pull-up jumpers inside the arc and has dropped in 13 of his 31 off-the-dribble triples (41.9 percent).

    Philly's offense has also navigated regular-season crunch time quite well. It is eighth in points scored per 100 possessions during traditional clutch play and ninth in the final two minutes of one-possession games.

    Replicating this overall efficiency during the playoffs will be harder. Only so much can be taken away from such finite samples. Between Embiid and Tobias Harris, though, the Sixers sure seem closer to crunch-time ready than not.

Phoenix Suns: Is the Center Rotation Playoff-Proof?

24 of 30

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Phoenix Suns do not want for options at the center spot. They just can't yet guarantee they have a mainstay—that 5 who can be deployed across virtually every situation, not only without regard for matchups but also peaking and valleying performance.

    Some will take this as a barb aimed at Deandre Ayton. It isn't meant to be. His most recent stretch ranks among his most consistent ever. He is finding his groove within an ecosystem that calls for lower usage and better decision-making, and his defense remains a bright spot. He seems more likely to be played off the floor on offense than at the less glamorous end.

    Fluctuation is nevertheless built into his game. He still has nights where you don't realize he's on the floor. Phoenix can turn to Dario Saric-at-the-5 arrangements in those situations and has throughout the year, but to what end? His efficiency has trailed off since the middle of March, and opposing offenses have done a better job attacking him before he gets to his spots on defense.

    Units with Saric at center are still bulldozing opponents for the entire season. But are they sustainable in the postseason? Or even an option when running into rotations with bigs like Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis?

    And how do the Suns react in those spots? Roll with Ayton for better or worse? Turn to Saric and cross their fingers if Ayton isn't cutting it? Do they go scorched earth and use a downsized frontline featuring Torrey Craig and Jae Crowder as their de facto bigs? How the Suns, an actual contender, handle their center rotation in the playoffs is among the postseason's most fascinating subplots.

Portland Trail Blazers: Does This Core Have Another Level?

25 of 30

    Isaac Hale/Associated Press

    Head coach Terry Stotts has seen his seat exponentially increase in temperature as the Portland Trail Blazers struggle to break through their "Good team that's not quite a contender" barrier. He is expected to be shown the door if they don't turn in a strong postseason performance, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania and Sam Amick.

    This jibes with the Blazers' maxed-out direction. They have just about exhausted their bandwidth to improve the roster—or come pretty close to it. They will be a luxury-tax team next season if they re-sign Norman Powell (player option) and don't have the asset firepower to enter the glitziest trade discussions unless they dangle one of their stars or find a team smitten with sponging up distant first-round picks.

    Switching up the head coach isn't just the most likely next move. It might be the only one.

    What that would accomplish is anyone's guess. Any change will clearly be routed in the defense, but while Portland shouldn't be bottom two in points allowed per 100 possessions, it doesn't have the requisite talent to slingshot up the stopping-power ladder through the addition of a new coach alone.

    Change for the sake of change is also whatever. It's hard to envision a team led by Damian "Everyone Ever Would Follow Him To Hell" Lillard needing a kick in the pants. The Blazers' rocky position is at least partially borne from bad luck. They might have another gear.

    Portland is 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions since Jusuf Nurkic rejoined the rotation. That's not great, but it's a big difference from 29th. Lineups with him on the floor also rank in the 81st percentile of defensive efficiency. The Blazers do a better job of limiting and contesting shots at the rim with their stud center healthy and on the floor. Go figure.

    Nurkic's minutes alone won't vault Portland into the contender's tier. That rise will demand more breaks in the team's favor—a shorter rotation panning out, Lillard and McCollum's defensive efforts holding, Anfernee Simons remaining lights-out on spot-up jumpers, etc. But there does, on some level, seem to be more to these Blazers as currently constructed, Stotts and all.

Sacramento Kings: So...What Now?

26 of 30

    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    General vagueness suits the Sacramento Kings. They haven't tied themselves to any singular direction. Whether that speaks to the optionality at hand or to a larger organizational disjointedness is a different story.

    De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton arm the Kings with two ultra-high-end cornerstones they can use to flesh out the future. They should nab another intriguing name, preferably on the wings, in this year's draft lottery.

    Then what?

    Sacramento can convince itself to follow the fight-for-a-play-in course. Fox, Haliburton, Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, Richaun Holmes, Delon Wright and a to-be-determined lottery pick is one helluva starting point. Any growth they get from (the suddenly extension-eligible) Marvin Bagley III is gravy.

    Good luck figuring out where the nucleus finishes inside the Western Conference. Best of luck to the Kings in even keeping it together. Holmes hits free agency after this season, and they only have his Early Bird rights. They'll need to dredge up cap space to afford him. 

    Cutting costs to re-sign Holmes is not short-sighted. He turns 28 in October, so his next deal will take him straight through the heart of his prime. But traveling extra lengths to keep him doesn't make much sense if Sacramento fancies itself a work-in-progress. And it might.

    Barnes spent a great deal of time in the rumor mill prior to the trade deadline, and Hields' name is forever in the ether. The decision to let Bogdan Bogdanovic walk in restricted free agency last offseason still speaks volumes, too. General manager Monte McNair appears married to no one other than Fox (signed a max extension) and Haliburton.

    Skewing toward a teardown around their two guards won't earn the Kings any goodwill. Their fanbase has put up with a lot of crap. The organization has repaid them with a playoff drought dating back to 2006. But going that route at least qualifies as a tangible direction, a step up from the indistinct path Sacramento is following now.

    If expediting a return to the postseason is the mandate, the Kings have to branch out beyond standing pat and hoping for internal improvement. The West does not forgive half-baked playoff pursuits. Sacramento needs to look at acquiring another star if it intends to make a ruckus next year—a move that puts them squarely at the mercy of the trade market and their capacity to outbid competing suitors without forking over Fox or Haliburton.

San Antonio Spurs: Which Timeline Will This Season Force Upon Them?

27 of 30

    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    A fork in the road awaits the San Antonio Spurs after this season, and their place inside the Western Conference isn't going to make the choice at hand any easier. They sit in 10th place, right at the bottom of play-in territory, a thoroughly middling position that can be used to endorse any one of three directions.

    DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills loom as the offseason inflection points. They are all slated for free agency. Is a play-in appearance that likely won't be parlayed into an actual first-round cameo good enough to justify re-signing all three and attempting to remain relevant in the West? With a line to more than $55 million in space, depending on what they do with their own free agents, are the Spurs deep enough to spin big-time spending on win-now players in a market bereft of real star power?

    Should San Antonio instead embrace the exact opposite and hit the reset button they've avoided pressing for so long? How does a 72-year-old Gregg Popovich impact that option? Is he open to overseeing the start of a rebuild?

    Do the Spurs split the difference and once again try straddling two timelines? They could, in theory, look to inflate the salaries of DeRozan, Gay and Mills in exchange for shorter-term deals that allow them to delay wholesale self-reflection another year or two. Are those three open to that type of an agreement? Or will they all be looking to latch onto more ready-made contenders?

    Unfeeling observers will wax poetic about the need for San Antonio to start over. That will also be the preferred trajectory of sentimentalists exhausted from a yearslong stint in mediocrity. But firing up the rebuild machine implies the Spurs have someone around which to, you know, build. Do they?

    Dejounte Murray comes closest. He has, somewhat quietly, recaptured All-Defense form and turned into a more willing shooter from the outside. His three-point clip isn't winning over efficiency purists, but the uptick in volume is important, and he's connecting on 47.7 percent of his long twos.

    Can he be the tent-pole pillar of a really good team? If not him, then who? Keldon Johnson? Devin Vassell? It definitely doesn't look like Lonnie Walker IV. It technically shouldn't be this year's draft pick, either—unless San Antonio jumps the lottery line.

    Don't confuse this uncertainty with the Spurs being trapped. They have options. They just want that obvious answer.

Toronto Raptors: Is This a Brief Detour or the Start of a Rebuild?

28 of 30

    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Night after night, the Toronto Raptors are making it clear they don't give a flying F-word about this season. Injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the roster earlier in the year. Their inconstant availability is more self-contrived now.

    Call it a stealth tank, organic nosedive, incidental descent, whatever. Skirting the play-in has inherent value. They don't give out trophies for losing to Philadelphia or Brooklyn in the first round, and the Raptors aren't even playing in Toronto. Sacrificing a seven-year playoff streak is worth the beefed-up lottery odds—especially when it allows them to glean additional insight into Khem Birch (who's playing fantastic, by the way), Malachi Flynn, Freddie Gillespie, Yuta Watanabe, etc.

    The prevailing assumption is that this will be one-year detour. Toronto has too much fringe-star talent at the top to immerse itself in a full-tilt rebuild. It'd be a bona fide playoff team if the first half to two-thirds of the season unfolded differently. The four-man combination of OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet has outscored opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions on the year.

    At the same time, this step back might not be entirely temporary. The Raptors shouldn't be lottery-bound at full strength next season, but their trek back to the East's contender clique is not a given. They have too many key free agents to guarantee much of anything.

    Does holding on to Lowry past the trade deadline imply a larger commitment to bringing him back? What is their breaking point on Gary Trent Jr.'s market (restricted)? Does Birch price himself out of their range?

    And perhaps most critically: Will Masai Ujiri, a free agent himself, be back in the fold? What does it say about the Raptors' plans if he's not? Does his return even infer anything? If anyone is hard-wired to curveball into a reset that not only entails letting Lowry walk but gauging the trade market for Siakam and VanVleet (Anunoby should be safe at age 23), it's him. What will be the deciding factor for all of this anyway? The futures of Lowry and Trent? Toronto's place in the lottery? Ujiri's own decision?

    Unanswered questions galore have hung over the Raptors all season. They're not going anywhere now.

Utah Jazz: Are They Actually a Wing Defender Short of Championship-Worthy?

29 of 30

    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Pivoting to Donovan Mitchell's right ankle sprain is worth consideration. He was expected to miss several games after an MRI showed no structural damage. He has instead been sidelined for 10 contests—and counting.

    Benefit of the doubt will be given to the Utah Jazz. They have a floor of the No. 2 seed. They can afford to slow-play his return.

    Weighing the staying power of their offense is similarly awkward. A healthy Mitchell gives them the star-power shot creation postseason attacks need, and they have the scoring reserves to back him with Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley. No team is posting a higher effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers.

    Settling on a defensive concern doesn't sit much better. The Jazz are first in points allowed per 100 possessions and have Defensive Player of the Year favorite Rudy Gobert—who, despite the reflexive Twitter jokes, is not effortlessly played off the floor. As noted previously, though, this question mark has little, if anything, to do with him.

    Utah's perimeter rotation accounts for all of the iffiness. It has formed a top-tier defense without employing a lockdown wing defender. That's at the very least worth monitoring when the Jazz will probably have to go through one, if not both, of the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.

    Nobody is going to completely shut down the Anthony Davis-LeBron James and Paul George-Kawhi Leonard partnerships. Every opposing team is to some extent in the Jazz's spot. But others have no-brainer options to throw at them. Their roster is such that Georges Niang or Miye Oni may need to get reps when it matters most.

Washington Wizards: Is the Defense for Real?

30 of 30

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Focusing on the Washington Wizards' biggest picture is fair game. Bradley Beal is slated for free agency in 2022 (player option), and star-trade vultures will continue circling him regardless of what he says unless his team plays itself out of stuck-in-the-mud territory.

    Washington is doing just that at the moment. Since beginning April on a four-game losing streak, it has gone 14-4, with the league's seventh-best net rating. The question, as ever, remains: Is this sustainable?

    That doubles as an inquiry into the defense. The Wizards are sixth in points scored per 100 possessions over this span, but that's not difficult to accept. A team with Beal, Davis Bertans and a version of Russell Westbrook who isn't playing through a torn quad is getting buckets? You don't say.

    The defense is tougher to reconcile. Washington ranked 26th in points allowed per 100 possessions through its first 49 games, making this stretch in which it places ninth the outlier. But as The Athletic's Seth Partnow outlined, this team isn't so much getting lucky as less unlucky:

    "There were some indications early in the season that Washington had been unfortunate. Depending on the day, there were moments when the Wizards were simultaneously first in CTG’s opponent shot location yet last in eFG% allowed. Granted, some of this disconnect was likely the result of an apparent oddity in the coding of shot locations of games played in Washington. The difference between a “restricted area” attempt and one from “paint (non-RA)” is substantially in a simple location model, and games played in Washington have seen the stingiest scorekeeping in recent NBA history in terms of awarding “restricted area” attempts. Meaning, in reality, their opponent shot profile was not quite as good as indicated."

    Through those first 49 games, the Wizards' expected effective field-goal percentage allowed ranked first, but their actual effective field-goal percentage allowed placed 17th. They still own the league's best expected field-goal percentage on defense during this stretch; their actual effective field-goal percentage allowed has just climbed to 11th. It also helps that their rotation is stocked with more active presences around the rim beyond just Robin Lopez.

    The tenability of this shift is a matter of course. And if the trend holds, it probably won't do more than ensure the Wizards escape the play-in tournament and suffer a first-round loss. That's not nothing. A strong close to the year at both ends gives them a direction off which to build, and no step in the right direction is too small when Beal's future remains, in some form, at stake.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate through Thursday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Adam Fromal.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.