Biggest question for each NBA team as training camp begins

Russell Westbrook

Down to the last minute with the Carmelo Anthony trade, it was an eventful offseason for the NBA. However, the beginning of training camp will settle roster movement (save for some preseason cuts) and allow the biggest questions to take the spotlight.

We don’t have all the answers, but not every NBA fan knows the primary concern for all 30 teams in the league. The unknown could be directly related to the 2017-18 squad or a question about the future.

Atlanta Hawks: Can Dennis Schroder carry the team?

Dennis Schroder has steadily moved from sixth man to starter to franchise cornerstone. Well, the last part was unexpected. Paul Millsap’s departure has tossed Schroder into the leading role just one season after he became a full-time starter. This is quite a leap for the guard, who averaged 17.9 points and 6.3 assists last year. Overhaul is a strong word, but the Hawks revamped the roster because Millsap left. None of those additions — Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli, for example — are more than complementary pieces. For better or worse, this is Schroder’s team. Is he ready for the challenge?

Boston Celtics: How quickly can chemistry be built?

Everyone knows blowing up the roster is a very normal response to winning a regular-season conference championship. In all seriousness, the Celtics rebuilt the lineup because of necessity — when a player of Gordon Hayward’s caliber wants to sign, you make it happen — and opportunity — Kyrie Irving demanded a trade. But to add those two superstars, Boston shipped off Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley while watching Kelly Olynyk leave in free agency. The long story short: Al Horford is the only returning member of the starting lineup. The Celtics will need to settle into a rotation, but the sooner that happens, the better.

Brooklyn Nets: Will the team shoot threes effectively?

Last season, Brooklyn launched the fourth-most three-pointers per game in the league. That in of itself is no problem. However, the Nets only knocked down 33.8 percent of those heaves, which ranked fifth-worst. While efficiency can be achieved despite a high volume, Brooklyn was nowhere close. Not coincidentally, the team also finished with the NBA’s worst record. The Nets added a couple of respectable shooters who will also start in D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe, so the hope for improvement is realistic. But if either Russell or Crabbe struggle, there really isn’t anyone to pick up the slack.

Charlotte Hornets: Does Dwight Howard solidify a playoff berth?

Heading into 2016-17, Charlotte had a three-season stretch of recording a sub-102 defensive rate. Each of those years included a top-10 finish in the category. But according to NBA.com, Steve Clifford’s team dipped to 14th with a 106.1 mark last season. Dwight Howard, who the Hornets acquired during the offseason, is no longer the dominant rim protector he once was, yet he should be an improvement on what Charlotte had in Cody Zeller last season. Tethered with the boost Howard can provide in pick-and-rolls offensively, he should help the Hornets snatch a playoff spot. “Should” is not a certainty, though.

Chicago Bulls: Will young players take advantage of minutes?

Where do the Bulls go from here? Other than south in the standings, we’re not entirely sure. Zach LaVine is now Chicago’s featured player on the roster, but he’s recovering from an ACL injury. In the meantime, the Bulls will rely on Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis and… Kris Dunn? Paul Zipser? Chicago must replace four key contributors from 2016-17, and their successors aren’t immediate upgrades. We know the Bulls are going to struggle this season, but young players like Dunn, Zipser and Lauri Markkanen will have ample opportunity to develop. Will they capitalize on the extra minutes or look overwhelmed in major roles?

Cleveland Cavaliers: Will Isaiah Thomas return as planned?

With or without Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland is going to make the playoffs. The Cavs would probably even cruise to the Eastern Conference Finals if the All-Star guard is sidelined. But it’s obviously ideal for Cleveland to have a healthy Thomas for as much of the season as possible. According to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, the team expects Thomas to return in January. That timeline is basically a non-issue for the Cavs, though it may take a few months for both the rotation to settle and teammates to be comfortable with Thomas running the point. LeBron James will propel Cleveland anyway, but Thomas is an important part of a potential championship run.

Dallas Mavericks: Is Nerlens Noel a part of the future?

Point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who the Mavericks selected No. 9 overall in the 2017 draft, will be afforded a chance to make mistakes. However, this is the final opportunity for Nerlens Noel to show his worth as a member of Dallas. He cannot afford a rough year. Noel signed a $4.1 million qualifying offer during the summer yet could be worth $15-plus million per season. But he can only prove that value if head coach Rick Carlisle believes the 23-year-old has earned the opportunity. Noel started just 12 of his 22 games with the Mavs last year and averaged 22 minutes. If that doesn’t change much, will Dallas think he’s worth re-signing as a featured piece?

Denver Nuggets: Do they have enough defense?

Denver boasted the league’s fifth-highest offensive rating (110.0) and true shooting percentage (56.8) last season. Fun! The Nuggets also recorded the NBA’s second-worst defensive rating (110.5) and surrendered the third-highest three-point percentage (37.5). Less fun! Yes, adding Millsap via free agency helps, but that’s merely one position on a roster that needed reinforcements everywhere. So, the Nuggets are banking on experience to improve the defensive end, which is unquestionably a risky proposition. They’re going to score a bunch of points, and that firepower will key Denver’s postseason pursuit. But when the Nuggets need a stop, can they get it?

Detroit Pistons: Will Reggie Jackson bounce back?

Courtesy of USA Today Images

Reggie Jackson missed the first 21 games of the 2016-17 season and had a disappointing campaign before getting shut down for the year heading into April. The Pistons have the talent to return to the playoffs, but it will only happen if Jackson — beyond staying healthy — regains his previous form. Fortunately for him, the addition of Avery Bradley should reduce the pressure of responsibilities on defense. Although Detroit tried to hide Jackson last year anyway due to lingering knee troubles, 2015-16 showed his weaknesses. For the Pistons to succeed, Jackson must have a resurgent season as the primary ball-handler and be adequate defensively.

Golden State Warriors: When do the conference finals start?

The Western Conference is a nightmare, but the Golden State Warriors are the antagonist. The road to the NBA Finals runs through them. Sure, there are a couple new faces on the bench and the Warriors are prone to overconfidence with their passing, but they really don’t have a systematic question to address. Additionally, though the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs are threats to Golden State’s throne, those teams will probably finish second and third in the West. Unless you think the Oklahoma City Thunder are a major threat, the Warriors should have no problem reaching the conference finals.

Houston Rockets: Is there enough backcourt depth?

James Harden is an MVP-caliber player. Chris Paul is considered one of the NBA’s best point guards. Eric Gordon is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. If head coach Mike D’Antoni staggers their minutes correctly, no other guard really needs to play. But what happens should any of them get injured? Can the Rockets trust Tim Quarterman, Isaiah Taylor or Bobby Brown to play significant minutes? The first two are inexperienced youngsters, while Brown is a 33-year-old who spent most of the last seven seasons playing overseas.

Indiana Pacers: Will they escape NBA purgatory?

After a busy offseason, the Pacers are good enough to compete for a final playoff spot but won’t be mistaken for a real contender. That’s a challenging spot for the organization, since both postseason success and a high draft pick are improbable. Until one or the other happens, Indiana won’t be a destination location for marquee free agents, and the team won’t land a top prospect unless the scouting department uncovers a gem. However, attracting a big name to a small market is an immense challenge, and gems don’t come around all that often. The Pacers had one, and he forced his way out the door. Will Indiana be anything but recklessly mediocre?

Los Angeles Clippers: Can Blake Griffin stay healthy, run the show?

Courtesy of Robert Hanashiro, USA Today Sports

Despite losing CP3, the organization recovered in commendable fashion. The Clippers definitely aren’t a real threat to Golden State, but they’re a playoff-worthy squad — given Blake Griffin’s health. Over an 11-game stretch without Paul last season, Griffin posted 22.5 points on 49.5 percent shooting with 8.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per outing. That small sample bodes well for the Clippers, who can run the offense through the power forward because of his passing ability. Yet he’s also missed at least 15 games in each of the last three seasons. While every player needs some rest days, Griffin’s recent history of injuries is a concern. The Clips are a playoff team with him. They’d certainly like to avoid what happens without him.

Los Angeles Lakers: How competitive does Lonzo Ball make them?

Although the Lakers are still at least a year away from playoff contention, Lonzo Ball will boost the efficiency (and fun!) of the offense. According to NBA.com, last year’s squad had a 103.4 offensive rating and 53.7 true shooting percentage. Those marks ranked 24th and 25th, respectively. What if Ball elevates Los Angeles to even league-average level? Following a 26-win campaign, does that boost the Lakers to 35-plus victories? Ball probably will find NBA teams are less inclined to allow step-back jumpers and will grant the mid-range shots he basically refused to attempt at UCLA. But as long as he adjusts quickly, Los Angeles could be a thorn to play.

Memphis Grizzlies: When will JaMychal Green be back?

Chandler Parsons appeared in just 34 games and averaged a meager 6.2 points on 33.8 percent shooting during his first year with the Grizzlies after signing a $94 million deal. Perhaps you think his effectiveness this season is more important, and that’s reasonable. As of now, though, JaMychal Green remains unsigned. Memphis extended a $2.8 million qualifying offer to the restricted free agent, who was (is) seeking a larger payday following a career year. He posted personal-bests of 27.3 minutes, 8.9 points and 7.1 rebounds last season. At this point, it’s highly unlikely Green finds a suitor elsewhere. That doesn’t mean he’ll report to Memphis soon.

Miami Heat: How good is the same roster (plus one)?

The opening half of the 2016-17 campaign shoved Miami into the top-pick conversation. As late as January 28, only the Nets had a worse record than the 10-31 Heat in the Eastern Conference. Then, to the surprise of just about every breathing basketball fan, Miami rattled off 13 consecutive wins and ultimately soared back to a .500 record at 41-41. The only reason the Heat missed the postseason was because the Bulls owned the tiebreaker. While we don’t expect Miami to sustain that torrid stretch, it showed the roster could compete with nearly every team. So, Pat Riley brought everyone back and added Kelly Olynyk. This is a playoff team. How much more?

Milwaukee Bucks: Once Jabari Parker returns, is this the year?

Last season, a torn ACL sidelined Jabari Parker for the second time in his three-year career. That injury will extend into 2017-18, though he’s expected to return around the All-Stat break. Giannis Antetokounmpo will carry the team anyway, so Parker’s injury — while significant — is not crushing. However, that changes once the postseason arrives. Milwaukee made the playoffs in both 2014-15 and 2016-17 but didn’t have Parker for either run. The Bucks exited in the first round for the sixth and seventh straight times in franchise history. Once Parker is back, will everyone else be healthy? If yes, a youthful Milwaukee squad could finally taste the second round.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Can this team match the hype?

Minnesota already had a promising core duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but an eventful offseason accelerated the team’s timeline. The organization traded for Jimmy Butler and signed Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford in free agency. The Butler-Wiggins combo may be somewhat redundant offensively and depth is a little suspect, but Tom Thibodeau might play his starters for 862 minutes per game anyway. Jokes aside, Minnesota is noticeably better on most areas of the roster. Barring injury, this team should snap a 13-year playoff drought. We’ve only seen the Wolves on paper, though.

New Orleans Pelicans: Will Jrue Holiday stabilize the team?

Most of the attention paid to New Orleans focuses on the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing. Those questions are relevant, but they won’t matter as much if Jrue Holiday isn’t steadying the Pelicans. Last season, per NBA.com, New Orleans had a 103.7 offensive rating and 102.8 defensive clip with the point guard on the floor. Without Holiday, those numbers moved to 102.8 and 107.6, respectively. The $126 million man has massive responsibilities on this team, especially given the other backcourt options. No other guard has Holiday’s combination of playmaking, scoring and defense. If he struggles, so will the Pels.

New York Knicks: How will they handle Frank Ntilikina?

In the aftermath of the Carmelo Anthony trade, the Knicks won’t be an especially competitive team. They’ll focus on making Kristaps Porzingis the featured player, but a similarly important storyline is the debut of point guard Frank Ntilikina. The 19-year-old missed summer league due to a knee bruise, so his first significant action will be during the regular season. Between his age and lack of experience, Ntilikina is going to encounter some rough stretches. New York needs to find the proper balance of letting him play through mistakes and not obliterating his confidence, and a consistent role — start him regularly or don’t — would be helpful.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Is this Big Three going to work?

Among players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game, according to NBA.com, Russell Westbrook ranked first in with a 40.8 usage percentage. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony checked in at 16th and 17th, respectively, with 29.1 and 29.0 usage clips. All of them were top 10 in isolation attempts, too. There is something to be said for shouldering a heavy load out of necessity, but the “only have one ball” trope kind of applies to the new-look Thunder team. If OKC can unlock “Olympic Melo” who is a lethal spot-up shooter and rarely initiates the offense, this Big Three could thrive. If they’re fighting over the ball, the Thunder won’t reach their intriguing potential.

Orlando Magic: Will they commit to Elfrid Payton?

Elfrid Payton is a quality young point guard. Last season, he matched or set career-highs with 12.8 points, 6.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds. How much is that worth to the Magic, though? Payton is extension-eligible until Oct. 17, lest he become a restricted free agent next summer. The 23-year-old will (and should) be seeking a big-dollar contract, yet Orlando needs to weigh whether he’s truly a building block for the future. Perhaps it would be in the franchise’s best interest to hold off on extending Payton and let him reach the semi-open market. Waiting until then is a risk, but it might lead to a more team-friendly deal since only a handful of teams will have cap space in 2018.

Philadelphia 76ers: Can Joel Embiid survive a full season?

In 31 games, Joel Embiid showed the hype was warranted. He amassed 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists per outing. Unfortunately for the 76ers, another injury robbed the remainder of the season from the talented center. Now, they face the extension or RFA question with Embiid. In today’s NBA, oft-injured players shouldn’t be expected to appear in all 82 games. Scheduled rest days are planned for healthy guys, let alone anyone with an injury past. But does Philly need to see a near-full campaign from Embiid — who missed all of 2014-15 and 2015-16 and 51 contests last year— before giving him a massive contract? Or will the Sixers gamble on his talent?

Phoenix Suns: When do they start tanking?

Phoenix has All-Star-caliber guards in Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker plus a bevy of intriguing young players led by rookie Josh Jackson. The future is bright for the Suns, but that’s also a gentle way of saying they’re not going to be competitive in the Western Conference this year. When that reality becomes clear, Phoenix should repeat what it did last season and focus on developing those inexperienced pieces. Yes, that’s a coded message for tanking, but that is unquestionably the smartest move for the Suns. Another high draft pick could net a cornerstone center, allowing the team to part with Alex Len next summer and Tyson Chandler — if he’s not traded anyway — in 2019.

Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic will get paid; how much?

Jusuf Nurkic fits the same conversation as Payton and Embiid. Portland faces a considerably more stressful decision with the 23-year-old center. When (not if) the Trail Blazers commit to Nurkic, their roster is locked in through 2019-20 at the absolute earliest. Although Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are worth the hefty price, Evan Turner will hover around $18 million while both Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard will earn an average north of $10 million until the summer of 2020. Portland can’t let Nurkic walk, but will waiting for him to hit restricted free agency force the Blazers to match another max contract?

Sacramento Kings: Is Buddy Hield what the Kings want him to be?

Or, perhaps even more bluntly, is Buddy Hield what the Kings need him to be? When they shipped Cousins to the Pelicans, Sacramento committed its future to building around Hield’s potential. The arrival of point guard George Hill should foster the shooting guard’s development, since Hield won’t be asked to shoulder a ball-handling burden in addition to his scoring responsibilities. Despite only entering his second year, however, he’s already 23 years old. By no means does that make 2017-18 a make-or-break season for Hield, but Sacramento needs to see marked improvement from the Oklahoma product as he continues adjusting to a featured role.

San Antonio Spurs: Are they better than last year?

The franchise is a model of consistency, winning 50-plus contests in every season since 1997-98 except the 50-game campaign in 1998-99. We’re not wondering if the Spurs will compete for the playoffs. But while the Warriors managed to keep its rotation, the Rockets added CP3 and the Thunder built their version of a Big Three, San Antonio… re-upped both Patty Mills and Pau Gasol, signed Rudy Gay and watched Jonathan Simmons leave. That was a decent offseason, but “decent” is risky in the West. With a superstar like Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio will always be in the conversation. The Spurs’ level of success is heavily reliant on him, though.

Toronto Raptors: Can they reach the next tier in the East?

Kyle Lowry

First, the good news: Toronto has notched at least 48 wins in four consecutive seasons. Now, the less-good news: The Raptors — who also lost as a higher playoff seed in both 2014 and 2015 — are a paltry 2-8 against the Cavs in the playoffs over the last two years. In other words, Toronto is a lock for the postseason and a complete wild card after that. Though the starting lineup with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan is formidable, experienced depth is lacking behind Norman Powell. That will change as the season progresses and players like Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl settle into regular roles, but does even the best-case scenario include anything more than a brief postseason stay for Toronto?

Utah Jazz: Can Rodney Hood handle being the featured player?

Defense will guide the Jazz to start the post-Hayward era, just like it did when the All-Star forward led the team. However, somebody needs to replace his 22 points per game. Rodney Hood is the unquestioned choice, yet this will be a considerable leap in responsibility for the fourth-year player. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2015-16, he’s averaged 13.7 points on 41.5 percent shooting and just 2.2 assists despite a 23.1 usage rate, per NBA.com. That’s not to suggest Hood is selfish, but he must be a more effective passer in this playmaking role — while taking on a larger share of the scoring duties. No pressure.

Washington Wizards: Is the bench even average?

“I think right now, as far as I know, I think we’ve got one of the worst benches in the league right now,” Wizards center Marcin Gortat said in November 2016, according to Candace Buckner of The Washington Post. And for the rest of the season, that never changed. The reserve unit ranked third-worst, per hoopsstats.com, and proved to be part of Washington’s downfall during the playoffs, too. To remedy the issue, the Wizards added Jodie Meeks, Tim Frazier and Mike Scott. Depending on training camp, Donald Sloan may stick on the roster as well. Washington would benefit immensely from the new-look reserves simply rising to “average” status.