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10 burning early-season questions around the NBA

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

With the NBA having tipped off a few days ago, teams are just now starting to grasp what the early part of the schedule will mean to them.

There was a ton of movement during the summer, forcing some teams to work through the kinks during the early part of the season. Meanwhile, we saw notable players struggle in their initial action of the season.

With way more questions than answers at this early point, we check in on the biggest early-season questions around the NBA.

Is Carmelo Anthony a detriment to the Rockets? 

This future Hall of Famer struggled big time in his Rockets debut Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans. Anthony scored just nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, missing his last six shots from the field. He was also minus-20 in 27 minutes of action. That’s just not going to get it done moving forward.

The question here is whether Anthony can take to a bench role for the first time in his career without impacting his team’s overall performance. “It’s challenging mentally more so than anything,” Anthony said after the 131-112 season-opening loss. How said challenge is accepted by both Anthony and the Rockets moving forward will be telling.

How will the Sixers’ rotation look? 

If we’ve learned anything from their first two games, it’s that the Sixers’ depth is nowhere near the level of their rivals back east, the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. Their season-opening 105-87 loss to Boston proved this big time. Philadelphia’s bench was outscored 44-26. That was legitimately the difference in the game.

The Sixers have yet to commit to T.J. McConnell as a key rotational piece, leading to speculation that he might be traded. Once Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler get back on the court, we’ll have a better understanding about Philadelphia’s rotation moving forward. Even then, both are new additions and might have to carve out a niche on the second team before making impacts. It will be an interesting dynamic as the early part of the schedule plays out.

Is this the Warriors’ best group of bigs during run?

Even without DeMarcus Cousins in the mix as of yet, the Warriors’ group of big men look pretty darn strong. Former first-round pick Damian Jones is getting the start out of the gate. And after averaging 1.8 points in his first two NBA seasons, the youngster put up 12 points in Golden State’s season-opening win against Oklahoma City. He’s followed in line by two extremely active players in Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell, both of whom performed well during the Warriors’ championship run last season.

Just imagine how good this group will be when Cousins ultimately returns from the Achilles injury he suffered with New Orleans last season. It’s quite the juxtaposition with Golden State lacking a lot of depth behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt. And it might ultimately lead to a surprising early-season trade.

How good can Josh Richardson be?

The answer to this is a resounding pretty darn good. Bandied about in trade talks surrounding Jimmy Butler, Richardson might now be a can’t-miss star in the making for Miami. He’s averaging 24.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists over the first two games of the season. This is a dramatic increase in production from what we saw the 25-year-old wing do during his first three NBA seasons.

In a weakened Eastern Conference, it’s possible that a Richardson-led Heat squad could make a deep run in the playoffs. Add in the likes of Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Dwyane Wade and this could be an under-the-radar squad moving forward on the season.

When will Jimmy Butler be traded?

Not quick enough. That’s the answer you’ll likely get behind the scenes from both Butler and his Minnesota Timberwolves squad. After having requested a trade last month, Butler remains on the Wolves. There’s not a ton of interest in his services on the trade market, and things aren’t necessarily going swimmingly in the Twin Cities.

It’s just a matter of time before Minnesota has to swallow its pride and accept the best offer for Butler. He’s not going to re-sign in free agency, and it seems that the situation just isn’t sustainable. The first sign of a further divide between Butler and his teammates will likely lead to a trade. Expect that to happen sooner rather than later.

Can the Raptors keep up with the Celtics?

While certainly a small sample size, Kawhi Leonard looks darn good donning that Raptors uniform up north. He led Toronto to a blowout win of the Cavaliers in his debut with the team. Coupled with fellow recent acquisition Danny Green, the Raptors’ depth is going to stand out in a big way moving froward. Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles represent a strong bench.

It just remains to be seen how Leonard is going to mesh with fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry moving forward. We know full well Lowry wasn’t happy with Toronto trading DeMar DeRozan. Whether that spills on to the floor remains to be seen. But this squad surely can contend with Boston back east.

Just how good is Utah’s offense?

If Australian lefty Joe Ingles continues to take that next step, there’s no question these Jazz will have one of the top offenses in the Association when all is said and done. He shot 4-of-6 from three-point range in Utah’s season-opening win over Sacramento, pouring in 22 points in the process. Under-the-radar MVP candidate Donovan Mitchell, only in his second season, is a perennial 20-plus point scorer.

Outside of that, there’s just a beautiful mix of players that will average double-digit points this season. That includes Rudy Gobert, Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors in the frontcourt and the likes of Ricky Rubio, Alec Burks and Dante Exum in the backcourt. Yeah, this team is stacked offensively. Will it translate to championship contention?

Is the Pelicans’ roster too top-heavy?

Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic and Jrue Holiday did major damage in New Orleans’ season-opening blowout win over Houston. The three combined for 72 points, 34 rebounds and 19 assists. It has the looks of one of the best trios in the entire Association.

The good news here for the Pelicans is that it looks like they have real depth for Davis for the first time in his career. Free agent signing Elfrid Payton put up a triple-double in the win and is part of a three-guard lineup. Meanwhile, Julius Randle packs a major punch off the bench. Even then, there has to be some concern that the Pelicans might only go six or seven deep. In a marathon that is the NBA season, that has to be concerning.

Are the Celtics NBA’s deepest team?

On the other end of the spectrum, these Celtics can throw out a rotation consisting of nine starter-caliber players. Such is the nature of the beast for a team that earned a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, sans injured stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Their injuries enabled youngsters to step into larger roles, giving Boston some major depth this season.

We know all about young lottery picks Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both are among the reasons Boston took Cleveland to seven in the conference finals. But the presence of Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes gives this Celtics roster the deepest unit in the entire Association. Whether that lasts remains to be seen and is the one lingering question here.

How long before LeBron and the Lakers mesh?

The focus is obviously going to be on King James in Hollywood. He made sure of that by signing with one of the most-heralded franchises in Association history. Even then, it’s important to note that this year’s version of the Lakers has eight new players. It’s going to take a lot more than training camp, the preseason and a handful of games for this new group to mesh under head coach Luke Walton.

We saw that first-hand in the Lakers’ season-opening loss to Portland. Despite having James, Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball on the court, Los Angeles put up a paltry 23 assists in defeat. Lakers players were 0-for-7 on shots from beyond the arc on passes from Mr. James. The team also yielded 128 points in regulation. There’s a lot to like here. But it’s going to take the supporting cast some time to find its niche behind the King. How long is the major question.