1 Question Still Haunting Every NBA Team

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2021

1 Question Still Haunting Every NBA Team

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Unanswered questions are part of what makes the NBA's offseason exciting. Uncertainty isn't so far removed from hope, for the optimist.

    But we've got the word "haunting" right up there in the hook, so you know the questions we'll lay out here are the ones we'll refer back to if or when things don't work out optimally for the team involved.

    Did a positional void go unfilled? Does a team's offseason plan feel flawed? Has the organization missed an opportunity or tried to seize the wrong one? Did inaction simply kick a lingering problem down the road, making it sure to arise again?

    Those are the kinds of questions that can haunt, that can lead to regret. We'll hit them all here.

Atlanta Hawks: Where Will the Scoring Come from When Trae Young Sits?

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Last season, Atlanta's offensive rating was a sparkling 118.2 with Trae Young in the game and a dim 104.4 when he rested, a difference of 13.8 points per 100 possessions. Per Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time, only Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic produced larger positive differentials on offense. Atlanta's issue persisted in the postseason, as it scored 10.7 fewer points per 100 without Young.

    A singular offensive force like Young can so completely define his team's identity on that end that, when he's out of the game, the remaining Hawks almost seem adrift. Absent the fulcrum around which they revolve, it's like they spin out of orbit, unbound from the center. Of course, if roughly 15 minutes of directionless floating per night is the price of having Trae Freaking Young dominate the other 33, the Hawks are surely happy to pay it.

    The Hawks didn't add any notable scoring punch over the summer, which might not be an issue if any of their promising young players—Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish—take the next step, or if Bogdan Bogdanovic can stay healthy. Still, the biggest problem Atlanta faced last year remains unaddressed.

Boston Celtics: Can the Offense Get Humming?

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Let's chalk up the Boston Celtics' 2020-21 defensive decline to some combination of malaise, health and safety protocols, Marcus Smart missing time and, perhaps, the diminishing strength of coach-turned-executive Brad Stevens' hold over the locker room. The Celtics finished 13th on D end after ranking between second and sixth in each of the previous three seasons, and we should trust Smart and Co. to sort things out.

    The offensive trouble signs were more glaring. The Celtics were overly reliant on isolation sets, and their extremely low number of potential assists per game further illustrated a lack of flow. You could see the stagnation take hold—sometimes for a few plays in a row, sometimes for entire halves or games.

    Bargain addition Dennis Schroder can score, but he's never been a two-passes-ahead thinker. B/R's Eric Pincus reported former teammate Anthony Davis was frustrated with the quality of looks he got playing alongside Schroder with the Los Angeles Lakers last season. The returning Al Horford, long a trustworthy elbow facilitator, should be more helpful.

    In the end, fixing Boston's occasionally clunky offense may come down to new head coach Ime Udoka's style and the team's two stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, emphasizing ball movement. It's doable for a group this talented, and maybe the absence of Kemba Walker, whose load management might have prevented ideal chemistry, will work out for the best.

Brooklyn Nets: Who's Closing Finals Games at Center?

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets belong atop everyone's title-favorite list; they took the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks to seven games in the conference semis, despite just one of their three superstars entering that series healthy. They might have only been a toe's length away from glory.

    At the risk of upsetting Kevin Durant, who prefers no one worry about what goes on at the top of things, we have to log Brooklyn's potential problem. Even after signing Paul Millsap, who might only be a small-ball 5 at this late stage of his career, and LaMarcus Aldridge, whose lack of mobility became a problem several years ago, the Nets don't have an ideal option to put on the floor at center in the postseason minutes that matter most.

    Blake Griffin proved he wasn't washed last season, and he looks like the starter. But his waning mobility and struggles to contest shots at the rim leave him wanting as a switching option and as a last line of defense in drop coverage. DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green are already gone, and Nic Claxton may not be ready for the biggest stage.

    It might not matter. Brooklyn's surplus of scoring talent and star power will probably compensate for other shortcomings. But still, good playoff opponents figure out how to capitalize on tiny weaknesses. The Nets might have one in the middle.

Charlotte Hornets: Are There Enough Shooters Left?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Heading into the offseason, it seemed as if the Charlotte Hornets would choose between keeping one of their two restricted free agent guards, Devonte' Graham or Malik Monk. Instead, perhaps because James Bouknight surprisingly slid to them at No. 11 in the draft, the Hornets chose not to retain either of them.

    Monk has been inconsistent throughout his career, but he drilled a personal-best 40.1 percent of his 5.0 three-point attempts per game in 2020-21. Graham, though one of the league's worst finishers inside the arc, hit 37.5 percent of his deep shots last year. Trusting non-shooter Ish Smith and Bouknight to fill that specific void is a mistake. Free-agent signee Kelly Oubre Jr.'s 2020-21 is most notable for his historically frigid shooting start.

    Charlotte shored up its center position by taking on Mason Plumlee in a salary dump from the Detroit Pistons. A limited big with no range, Plumlee's best asset is his passing. But if the Hornets can't dot the perimeter with dangerous shooters, it'll limit Plumlee's impact. Ditto for franchise centerpiece LaMelo Ball.

    Slotting PJ Washington at center more often will help, and we should expect the Hornets to make most of their money in transition, as the roster is littered with good ball-movers. But shooting is still king, and the Hornets have less of it than they used to.

Chicago Bulls: Is It Still Success with Standards This Low?

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    This is an honest question, not a dig at the Chicago Bulls, a team whose recent transactions suggest an obsession with being slightly above average at all costs. Not every team gets to contend, and depending on market size or ownership's willingness to spend, the standard of what constitutes success can vary.

    The Bulls surrendered multiple first-round draft picks and a lottery-selected center in Wendell Carter Jr. for Nikola Vucevic last season. Vooch is a tremendous offensive force, but his career highlight so far is leading the 2018-19 Orlando Magic to a 42-40 record and an unceremonious first-round playoff dismissal. He and Zach LaVine, a brilliantly skilled offensive weapon who's seen precisely zero playoff minutes in seven seasons, weren't enough to prevent the Bulls from finishing 10 games under .500 in 2020-21.

    Chicago did well to snag Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade with the New Orleans Pelicans. That acquisition, combined with an eye-opening $85 million outlay for DeMar DeRozan, when no other team had the cap space or desire to approach that number, concluded a spendthrift summer that effectively locks the Bulls into a roster with wretched defense, glaring holes and a low ceiling.

    The postseason is a possibility, but significant disappointment is more probable. Superpowers lurk in the East, and Chicago has built a roster—at great cost to its draft equity and future flexibility—that cannot compete with them. The Bulls went all in for a team that optimistically tops out as the East's No. 6 seed.

    They're better than they were, but for a dangerously high price. Will it be worth it?

Cleveland Cavaliers: How Much Spending on Youth Is Too Much?

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Cavaliers aren't traditionally a free-agent destination, so their dollars don't go as far as most teams'. You have to factor in that reality when gauging the efficiency of their spending.

    Even acknowledging that, and even when further admitting that the Cavs correctly allocated resources on players who fit into the age band of their young core, $100 million is just...well, it's a lot for center Jarrett Allen. And $67 million ($55 million guaranteed) is a pretty penny for Lauri Markkanen, whose only other realistic option might have been accepting a $9 million qualifying offer from the Chicago Bulls.

    That Markkanen also cost the Cavs Larry Nance Jr. in a sign-and-trade deal nudges that transaction further into questionable territory.

    Allen is a non-stretch, non-switch center. Though a fine rim protector and rebounder with some upside, he plays a role many NBA teams fill with minimums and roster exceptions. Markkanen similarly has potential as a stretch big, but his health history and lack of defense mark him as a specialist who wasn't in demand during restricted free agency.

    The Cavs could come out of this just fine, but for a team with limited resources and little margin for error, large expenditures like those could backfire.

Dallas Mavericks: Where's Luka Doncic's Help?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It happened again last season.

    Luka Doncic faded in the playoffs, particularly in second halves, the logical result of a player posting an outsized usage rate against a dialed-in defense over an extended stretch. After re-signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a perfectly reasonable deal and adding Reggie Bullock for the mid-level exception, Dallas concluded its offseason looking improved, but without adding a player capable of easing Doncic's burden.

    Kristaps Porzingis' defensive slippage and injury-driven inconsistency make it hard to see him succeeding as a championship-caliber second option. If he's not a worthy second star, and Dallas didn't add a third, where's the Doncic support going to come from?

    The league's best young player is locked up on a new max extension, so the Mavericks should feel some level of security. But by committing cash to role players this past summer, they've made it even harder to find Doncic the help he needs.

Denver Nuggets: What's the Point, Anyway?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Sorry if this is a little bleak and existential. It's not all bad in Denver.

    The Nuggets have an in-prime MVP in Nikola Jokic, not to mention plenty of other goals to achieve in 2021-22.

    Michael Porter Jr. could complete his ascent to stardom, for example, while also developing even better chemistry with Jokic. Maybe he'll form the same kind of back-cutting mind meld former Nugget Gary Harris shared with Jokic a few years ago, before Harris' injuries and decline broke that special connection.

    But for a Nuggets team that was a fringe contender at full strength, Jamal Murray's prolonged absence and uncertain form upon his return knock expectations down a critical peg. Instead of thin-slicing the Nuggets' upcoming season in search of the tiny improvements that separate the very good from the truly great, we've got a definitive statement: Denver cannot contend without a fully healthy Murray.

    Murray tore his ACL in April, so with the typical 9-12 months of recovery time, 2021-22 looks like a lost season. This is disappointing, but not quite despair-worthy. Denver can resume its title chase in 2022-23.

Detroit Pistons: How Does Killian Hayes Fit into the Cade Cunningham Era?

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    If the Detroit Pistons' experimentation with an off-ball version of Killian Hayes late last season revealed anything sustainable, maybe this isn't a haunting question at all. Then again, you'd lose a lot of money betting on the predictive value of information gleaned during the garbage-time portion of a lottery-bound team's season.

    Whether or not it's a good thing to so quickly pivot from viewing a player as a franchise point guard to reducing his ball-handling responsibility (it's probably not a good thing), Hayes seemed cool with the attempt.

    "I love it," 2020's No. 7 pick told Rod Beard of the Detroit News in May. "It just makes the game more fun because when you always have the ball in your hands, the defense can read what you want to do."

    Cade Cunningham is a ready-made primary ball-handler who'll get the keys to the offense from the jump. You don't draft a top overall pick like him and ease him in with a supporting role.

    Hayes may be open to playing off the ball, but he shot 27.8 percent on threes and 39.5 percent on twos last season. There's a realistic scenario in which a player Detroit envisioned as a centerpiece winds up ineffectively operating on the periphery.

Golden State Warriors: Should They Have Traded for a Star?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Maybe there was never a reasonable offer for a star on the table.

    "The Sixers asked for Andrew Wiggins, James Wiseman, the Nos. 7 and 14 picks in tonight's NBA draft along with two future first-rounders," per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and it's hard to call that one a no-brainer from the Golden State Warriors' perspective.

    With a wide-open race for the top of the West, Klay Thompson's return, some key veteran additions and the potential emergence of the young players Golden State didn't deal away, it's possible a splashy trade won't be necessary to build a serious contender. The Warriors might be very dangerous in the immediate future and set up to thrive long term if the youth—Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Jordan Poole and Moses Moody—look legit.

    Of course, that hypothetical runs up against a persuasive reality: Stephen Curry is 33, and the franchise he transformed owes it to him to shove every last chip into the middle right now.

    If the Warriors flounder and the young talent doesn't look as promising as many hope it will, it'll be easy to look back on this trade-free offseason and lament.

Houston Rockets: When's the Right Time to Rip off the Band-Aid?

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    The Houston Rockets can't possibly envision John Wall or Eric Gordon as part of their long-term future. The youth-focused rebuild that gained real steam with the drafting of Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun this offseason has no place for high-priced veterans.

    Wall, 31, has two more years on his deal at the supermax rate, which doesn't make him immovable (he's already been traded once on that contract), but certainly precludes the possibility of dealing him for positive value. Gordon, 32, has $37.8 million coming to him over the next two seasons before his $20.9 million nonguaranteed figure will surely come off the books in 2023-24. He'll be the easier of the two to move, as long as his health holds up.

    Waiting will decrease the amount of money an acquiring team would owe either guard, thereby diminishing the pick outlay Houston would have to attach in trade. But the longer those two are on the roster, the longer they're in the way of developing youth.

    Should the Rockets bite the bullet and move one or both as soon as possible to give their younger players more reps? Are buyouts an option? Or does Houston wait, keep spending big money on guys it doesn't need and run the risk of delaying the development of its most prized players?

Indiana Pacers: Will Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis Play Together Forever?

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Domantas Sabonis landed on the Indiana Pacers in 2017-18, his second season in the NBA. Myles Turner was already there. Seemingly ever since, we've wondered if the Pacers would make a deal to split up their two big men and allocate roster resources in a more balanced way. Arguments for and against separating them have been rampant for years.

    That's the definition of a haunting question—one that lingers and lingers until it's basically part of the fabric of a team.

    Indiana didn't split up Turner and Sabonis this offseason. Perhaps a return to health for a rotation that never played enough together to jell and a season unmarred by coaching controversy will turn our attention to something else: The Pacers might be very good—even with both bigs working together.

    More likely, the partnership will look functional on many days and less so on others, preserving one of the league's longest-running questions.

Los Angeles Clippers: Is Last Year's Shooting Sustainable?

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Just about everyone who suited up for the Los Angeles Clippers last season had the most efficient three-point shooting season of his career. From Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard to Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris and Nicolas Batum, L.A.'s gunners all hit threes at rates that were above their career averages, personal highs or both.

    As a result, Los Angeles led the league by a mile at 41.1 percent from deep as a team. Only two other clubs, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, were even above 39.0 percent.

    The Clips' two main offseason additions were suspect sniper Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow, who's logged more career seasons shooting under 30 percent (four) from deep than over (two).

    Subtract Leonard from the rotation for however long his partially torn ACL demands, price in likely regression from the perimeter for just about everyone on the roster, and the Clippers are going to have a hard time repeating their offensive performance of a year ago.

    L.A.'s 2020-21 defense was a top-10 unit, and slippage from deep might not be enough to knock an offensive efficiency that ranked third out of the top 10. So this isn't necessarily a critical issue. But it's something to keep an eye on.

Los Angeles Lakers: Was Trading for Russell Westbrook a Mistake?

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers likely won't be haunted by this question unless and until they fall short of a ring because nobody guards Russell Westbrook off the ball in the playoffs, leaving LeBron James and Anthony Davis under even more strain than before.

    The haunting could come sooner if Russ' athleticism continues to decline and he can't even occupy the load-bearing innings-eater role (for AD and LeBron preservation purposes) during the regular season.

    Westbrook is a big name and a big talent. But he's been defined throughout his career by a hyper-competitive refusal to compromise. Nothing he's ever done suggests he knows how to lower his usage or accept a role as an energetic cutter and disciplined defender. But that's what the Lakers are banking on.

    The Brooklyn Nets threw talent together that didn't seem to fit, and injury might have been the only thing that kept them from hoisting a trophy. You could forgive the Lakers for adopting a similar approach. Of course, all the Nets' talent could shoot. Westbrook is the least accurate high-volume gunner of all time.

Memphis Grizzlies: Can You Be Too Patient?

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    A small-market team built around youth should avoid lavish free-agent spending; the Memphis Grizzlies certainly don't want another max contract for Chandler Parsons on their hands. Note that the West has a crowded upper tier the Grizzlies aren't in, and the logic of exercising caution this past offseason grows.

    Memphis is notable for its lack of urgency, especially compared to other youth-based, small-market operations. Think along the lines of the New Orleans Pelicans, to whom the Grizzlies sent Jonas Valanciunas for a package of mostly unwanted assets and draft capital. Memphis finished ahead of the Pels in the West last season, but it transacted this summer like the team that had further to go in building a winner.

    This could all be fine. Nobody ever said the desperate Pelicans are a model of how to run a franchise or appease young talent. But the Grizzlies might want to get serious about moving up the standings sooner than later. We all love the idea that Ja Morant is the next Damian Lillard, a born loyal leader with more patience than the typical cornerstone. But the Blazers were posting 50-win seasons and advancing out of the first round by Lillard's second year.

    Credit Memphis for operating wisely, but a big swing might be necessary soon.

Miami Heat: Does the Future Matter at All?

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat got older, more expensive and seemingly less concerned with what the franchise might look like four or five years down the road than ever.

    They guaranteed Kyle Lowry, 35, $85 million over the next three years. Jimmy Butler's new extension includes a player option for $50.7 million in 2025-26, his age-36 season. Note that Butler, though as tough as they come, hasn't played more than 65 games in a season since 2016-17. Based on normal aging curves, it's almost unfathomable that either he or Lowry will be positive assets toward the ends of their deals.

    You have to admire the Heat's guts and the top-down emphasis on winning in the present. To Miami's credit, its rampant jettisoning of first-round picks over the last several years never came back to bite the team. If there's a club that knows how to pull off this kind of all-in play, it's the Heat.

    But to the risk-averse and future-focused out there, Miami's bold dismissal of long-term consequences is a little terrifying.

Milwaukee Bucks: Are We Going to Miss P.J. Tucker?

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    If it's all gravy now, and the Milwaukee Bucks' post-championship grace period immunizes them from the kind of go-for-it urgency that inspired last offseason's Jrue Holiday acquisition, maybe they won't look back with regret on the decision to let P.J. Tucker walk.

    The Bucks weren't willing to spend upward of $30 million in luxury tax to retain Tucker on a salary that would have been competitive with the two-year, $15 million deal the 36-year-old vet ultimately signed with the Heat.

    It's entirely possible Tucker won't be worth more than the minimum going forward; the aging curve comes for everyone, and the burly defensive specialist is a long way down the wrong side of it. If Tucker falls all the way off this season, letting him go will look like the kind of shrewd call smart teams make when they really do intend to put winning above everything else—sentiment included.

    But if the Bucks don't replace his toughness and defense, they'll regret pinching pennies with a title window still open.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Who's Going to Prop Up the Defense?

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    This question should feel familiar, as it's been top of mind for the Minnesota Timberwolves since last offseason. Any roster built around Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards is set in the shot-creation and scoring-punch departments, but the court has two ends, and the defensive one is where the Wolves are still sorely lacking.

    Trade acquisition Patrick Beverley will add some intensity...until he inevitably finds his way into foul trouble. He's been the hack-happiest big-minute guard in the league for years.

    If the Philadelphia 76ers eventually determine they can't do better than a package involving Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels, picks and some kind of compensation from a third team, maybe Ben Simmons will come aboard and decisively answer the question about where Minnesota's defense will come from.

    As it is, the Wolves, who finished 28th in defensive efficiency last season, don't project to do much better than that this year. Unless they field a top-three offense, it's going to be nearly impossible to crack .500.

New Orleans Pelicans: Is Zion Williamson Happy?

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Zion Williamson may not be a coach killer, but it's hard to imagine Stan Van Gundy would be out of a job if the New Orleans Pelicans' young superstar had spoken up strongly in favor of keeping his now-deposed head coach.

    Combine that with the report from The Athletic's Shams Charania, William Guillory and Joe Vardon that members of Williamson's family felt Van Gundy was "too rigid and demanding," and you could conclude that replacing Van Gundy with Willie Green will keep Williamson happy.

    Don't expect speculation about Williamson's contentment to end any time soon. Lonzo Ball's departure, while defensible on the grounds that he's not quite the caliber of player on whom the Pels should have spent their third (and theoretically final) big salary slot, might make Williamson wonder about the organization's commitment to building a serious winner. Even a Brandon Ingram trade, while not a lock to improve the roster, would have signaled some real ambition.

    Williamson's satisfaction is all that matters in New Orleans, and at best, it's uncertain heading into his third season.

New York Knicks: Why Didn't We Do This Before?

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The New York Knicks have officially changed their ways. Instead of knee-jerk trades or setting aside cap space to sign the marquee free agent that was never interested in the first place, they've pivoted to offering sensible, downside-protected contracts for quality players and valuing their own future first-rounders.

    It's so simple, it's almost genius.

    The Knicks currently have seven players on the roster making between $9 million and $23 million, an ideal range for throwing together multiple salaries in a trade for a disgruntled superstar. They also own all their own first-rounders—more ammo to fire off in a big-name deal, were one to arise at some point this year.

    New York will again compete for a playoff spot, driven by a combination of rising youth—RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley—and legitimate veteran talent—Julius Randle, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier. And while making the effort to improve on last year's No. 4 seed, they'll remain flexible enough to capitalize on whatever talent-acquisition opportunities present themselves.

    It's been a long time since the franchise seemed so sensibly managed and stable. Makes you wonder why the Knicks didn't try this before. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: Why Trade Away the Chance at Alperen Sengun?

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    There's a chance we look back on this question in five years and laugh. As impressive as Alperen Sengun's MVP of the Turkish League at age 18 may have been, and as persuasive as it was to see ESPN's Kevin Pelton rank Sengun first among all 2021 draft prospects, we're still talking about a teenager who slipped out of the lottery.

    Who knows what kind of player he'll become, or how long his career might be?

    Still, you'd think a franchise that reached for the exceptionally raw Aleksej Pokusevski at No. 17 a year ago would have been open to grabbing a far more established and tantalizing Sengun with the 16th pick.

    The Thunder dealt that chance away for two heavily protected future firsts from the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, respectively. Houston snagged Sengun at 16 and watched him tear it up in summer league.

    OKC loves the volume play, but in addition to being great trade fodder, the point of accumulating all those first-round picks is to use one of them to grab a potential gem in the draft. The Thunder might have let one get away here.

Orlando Magic: Is There Enough Veteran Leadership?

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Orlando Magic are doing the right thing by rebuilding. They weren't getting anywhere chasing the eighth seed behind Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, and now the franchise can lean all the way into a youth movement. Rookies Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner should get ample playing time, while Markell Fultz, Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton, Chuma Okeke, Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and (health, as always, permitting) Jonathan Isaac round out a very green rotation.

    What few veteran presences exist on the roster—Terrence Ross, Gary Harris and Robin Lopez—may not be the ideal tone-setters. That's not because any of the three are low-character influences. Far from it. It's just that Harris and Lopez are only under contract for this season and profile as trade chips. Ross has been the subject of trade rumors at each of the last two deadlines.

    While short-timer status isn't always a bad thing, you'd have to imagine all three of those players will struggle to feel fully invested in the Magic's rebuild.

    Not every franchise is lucky enough to have a perennial culture-setter like, say, Udonis Haslem in Miami. But Orlando is notably short on old heads to keep the youth on the right path.

Philadelphia 76ers: What's Coming Back in the Eventual Ben Simmons Trade?

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    What? Did you think I'd focus on how Georges Niang and Andre Drummond will fit into the Philadelphia 76ers' rotation? That'd be some epic, grand-master-level overthinking.

    Ben Simmons' future with the Sixers is obviously the most pressing, stress-inducing question facing the organization. Or, more precisely, since there doesn't seem to be any doubt Simmons has no future in Philly, what will the Sixers get back when they inevitably trade the 25-year-old three-time All-Star?

    Philadelphia could wait to see if Damian Lillard shakes loose in Portland, or it could decide the distraction of a Simmons-free training camp isn't worth it, opting instead to take whatever discounted offers are out there. It'd be wildly disappointing for the Sixers if, say, Simmons wound up with the Sacramento Kings for a package headlined by Buddy Hield rather than De'Aaron Fox or Tyrese Haliburton. But you never know what the market might dictate during a holdout.

    Whatever the result, the Simmons saga is going to be an agonizing process.

Phoenix Suns: One Wing Defender Short?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Based on a wildly successful 2020-21 that culminated with a trip to the Finals, the only thing haunting the Phoenix Suns should be their inability to prevent Giannis Antetokounmpo from putting up a 50-point game in the title-clincher.

    That inability afflicts just about every team, though. It's not like there's a surplus of Giannis stoppers out there.

    Phoenix added JaVale McGee to address the need for a backup center that arose when Dario Saric went down during the postseason, and it also brought in Elfrid Payton and Landry Shamet to occupy the fourth and fifth guard spots. Capped out, the Suns didn't have many avenues to add rotation talent, but it might have been wise to secure one more wing defender.

    Mikal Bridges is an elite stopper, Jae Crowder has never backed down from a tough matchup at either forward spot, and Cam Johnson's length makes him passable on D. But this is a championship contender sure to meet elite wings and forwards on another deep postseason run—whether it's a rematch with Antetokounmpo or a tussle with Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, LeBron James et al.

    You can never have too many options against the league's top-end alphas.

Portland Trail Blazers: Have We Done Enough?

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    This is the question the Portland Trail Blazers will ask themselves constantly, probably for the remainder of Damian Lillard's tenure with the team—whether that's a few more months or for the duration of his supermax contract.

    Portland replaced head coach Terry Stotts with Chauncey Billups, and trade acquisition Larry Nance Jr. fits very well as a facilitating roll man in an offense that runs a ton of high-screen action. Cody Zeller is...adequate as a low-cost backup. But, see above: Have the Blazers done enough?

    Enough to ensure they've got a roster capable of a deep playoff run? Enough so that Lillard keeps batting down chatter he'll force his way to another team? Enough to give the Blazers a moment's respite from rival executives' probing trade calls?

    Don't bet on it. Fair or not, Lillard-related anxiety is going to be a defining feature of Portland's season.

Sacramento Kings: Should De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton Be Untouchable?

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    To be fair, Sacramento Kings cornerstones De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton aren't completely off-limits. All we know for sure, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic, is that the Kings yanked both young guards off the table in any discussion of a Ben Simmons trade.

    You can understand the reasoning. Sacramento has no incentive to put its best assets on offer when it seems clear the Sixers will only get more desperate and lower their asking price as a potentially awkward training camp, which won't be attended by Simmons, approaches.

    Every team overvalues its own assets, especially young and homegrown ones, while undervaluing those of other organizations. The endowment effect is a powerful thing.

    But step back and consider the chances Fox or Haliburton provides more value than Simmons going forward.

    Simmons has made three All-Star games, two All-Defensive teams and one All-NBA third team. He's led the league in steals and played in six postseason series. Fox is less than a year-and-a-half younger than Simmons, and the only hardware in his postseason-less trophy case are two Western Conference Player of the Week awards.

    Haliburton, a promising guard with great instincts but limited athleticism and size, would stun everyone by accumulating anything close to the career accolades Simmons already has.

    If the Kings can get Simmons for a pu pu platter of Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III and picks, by all means, they'd better. But they should also consider the unlikelihood that either Fox or Haliburton ever approaches Simmons' status in the league when deciding who's really off-limits.

San Antonio Spurs: How Much Will Patty Mills' Absence Matter?

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Head coach Gregg Popovich will still be stalking the sidelines, fresh off leading Team USA to Olympic gold in Tokyo. But this will be the first season that the San Antonio Spurs won't have a holdover player from their 2014 championship on the floor.

    Patty Mills is gone, lured away by the Brooklyn Nets and their superior title chances in free agency.

    Even in his age-32 season last year, Mills was an energizing force on both ends, sprinting full tilt into threes on the catch and harassing ball-handlers on the perimeter. It's hard to quantify the value of corporate knowledge and battle-tested savvy, but San Antonio just lost the guy with more of it than anyone on the roster.

    Even if the upcoming season figures to look more like a rebuild than any in recent Spurs memory, Mills' influence and voice would have been valuable. Maybe this is just the nostalgia talking, but it also feels like losing Mills finally put a period on San Antonio's decades of exceptionalism. The Spurs are a little less special than they used to be.

Toronto Raptors: Should Kyle Lowry Still Be Here?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's generally not good business to pay a guaranteed $85 million for a player moving into his late 30s, but Kyle Lowry is arguably the most important Toronto Raptor in franchise history (Vince Carter deserves consideration, too). If you're going to splurge, you do it for an icon.

    Lowry may not have been interested in a return, and the Raps might be just as competitive with their new, younger roster built around Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa and Scottie Barnes. But if Toronto finds itself struggling with crises of leadership or a lack of toughness this season, it'll be easy to cite the departure of their emotional leader as the source.

    Franchises have to turn the page eventually, but the Raptors may find themselves wondering whether they were truly ready for life without Lowry.

Utah Jazz: Where Are the Stoppers?

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz's second-round undoing against the Los Angeles Clippers is often mischaracterized as an exposure of Rudy Gobert's limitations. Sure, he's limited—in the sense that he can't put out multiple fires all at once—but so is every other defender in the league.

    The downsized Clippers ruthlessly spaced out and blew by Utah's perimeter defenders in the West semifinals. It was the first line of defense that failed the Jazz. Not the last.

    Though Gobert had to stray farther from the rim than he might have liked against L.A.'s shrunken lineups, at least he did his job when he got back to his comfort zone. Unfortunately, when he was able to deter shots inside, the Clips simply kept the ball hopping, exposing a Utah defense that struggled to recover to the three-point line.

    The Jazz's main offseason acquisitions were Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall—useful forwards on reasonable deals. But neither will challenge Royce O'Neale for the title of Utah's only trustworthy perimeter stopper. Unless Donovan Mitchell steps up on D, the Jazz will face the same issue that got them bounced last season.

Washington Wizards: When Are You Trading Bradley Beal?

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    This question will haunt the Washington Wizards in a different way than the previous 29 we've listed.

    It's the one that will continually, maddeningly be asked—despite repeated assurances that there's already an answer: Neither Bradley Beal nor the Wizards' front office is keen to break up. Its relentlessness and persistence, despite no real signal to go with the noise, is what makes it so haunting.

    Ben Simmons isn't long for the Sixers, and perhaps Damian Lillard won't like the feel of the Blazers' roster in camp. We'll have those situations to speculate about for a while. But eventually, Beal's future is going to become the source of (mostly baseless) forecasting again.

    If you're the Wizards, it's the specter you just can't shake.

            

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

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