Each NBA team’s biggest question mark heading into December

By Vincent Frank

The NBA heads into December at pretty much the quarter point of the season. The sample size is now large enough to draw a conclusion about where each team stands and what questions they might have.

From Chris Paul’s health in Houston and LeBron James usage in Cleveland to the status of head coaches on bottom-rung squads, here is the biggest question mark for each NBA team heading into December.

Houston Rockets: Chris Paul’s health

After missing 14 games to a knee injury earlier in the season, Paul now appears to be at 100 percent. He’s averaging north of 10 assists for his new team — a clear indication that the All-Star is fitting in well with MVP candidate James Harden. The issue here is that Paul has not proven to be healthy over the past couple years. He’s missed 35 games to injury since the start of last season. Houston needs this veteran at full health if it wants to compete with Golden State out west.

Boston Celtics: Can the youngins keep it up?

Both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are playing at ridiculously high levels for two youngsters. Brown, 21, is averaging 15.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in his sophomore season. Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Tatum is averaging 13.7 points and 5.4 rebounds as a rookie. They’re as important to Boston’s success moving forward as Kyrie Irving. And with an 18-4 record this season, the Celtics need these two young stars to continue progressing moving forward.

Golden State Warriors: Jordan Bell’s significance

We could focus on Kevin Durant’s ankle injury, but that doesn’t appear to be of the long-term variety. Instead, we’re much more interested to see how Bell continues to progress as a rookie moving forward this season. Bell is averaging just 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds. Though, he’s earned more playing time recently with elite-level defense and a solid inside offensive game.

The rookie scored seven points, grabbed six rebounds, dished out four assists and blocked six shots in his only start of the season against Chicago last week. Will Bell ultimately start over Zaza Pachulia at some point during his rookie season? It’s a legit question.

Detroit Pistons: Will they make a big move?

Boasting the second-best record back east and coming off a strong road win against Boston, things are definitely pointing up for Detroit. The question now is whether this team will look to add a star player. Rumors persisted earlier in the season that then Suns guard Eric Bledsoe was a target. Is is possible this surprising team will look at add that elite-level player to grow with Andre Drummond moving forward? Head coach and GM Stan Van Gundy has been aggressive in the past, so it most definitely wouldn’t surprise us if he did.

San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard’s injury

Gregg Popovich talks to Kawhi Leonard

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich just recently noted that Leonard’s quad injury is unlike anything he’s seen before. That has to be scary for the faithful in San Antonio, especially considering the team’s top player has not suited up since the Western Conference Finals last spring. With the Spurs posting a pedestrian 13-7 record thus far this season, the team simply needs Leonard back at 100 percent if they hope to contend out west. It’s just not yet known when that might happen.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Looking for reinforcements already

Cleveland has won nine consecutive since a horrible 5-7 start to the season. That’s the good news. The bad news here is that LeBron James is playing north of 37 minutes per game. He’s not young anymore, and the Cavs need to find a way to get him more rest while remaining alive for a No. 1 seed back east. Derrick Rose’s injury and ultimate decision to leave the team adds to this.

Unlike last season, when Cleveland was looking to add to its core, the team has trade chips to offer other squads. That comes in the form of Tristan Thompson and the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick (acquired from Boston) in the 2018 NBA Draft. This is something to watch.

Portland Trail Blazers: Can a supporting cast emerge?

It seems like a broken record in the Pacific Northwest. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum represent one of the five-best backcourts in the NBA. Young center Jusuf Nurkic has stepped up to the tune of 15.0 points and 7.7 rebounds this season. Outside of that, there’s not a lot to look at here. Only one other member of the team, Al-Farouq Aminu, is averaging as much as 8.0 points per game. He’s shooting at just a 43 percent clip from the field and is out with an ankle injury. This has to change if Portland wants to contend out west.

Toronto Raptors: Improved supporting cast? 

Toronto has done well to stay among the top rung in the Eastern Conference, having posted a 12-7 record on the season. Unfortunately, there remains little reason to believe this squad can hang with the likes of Cleveland and Boston moving forward. That’s only magnified with Kyle Lowry having his worst statistical season since 2012-13. But with Serge Ibaka, C.J. Miles and Jonas Valanciunas all averaging double-digit points, this team seems to be deeper from a scoring standpoint than the past several seasons. Whether that’s sustainable remains to be seen.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins’ two-way game

It wasn’t too much of a shock that Minnesota had its ups-and-downs during a pedestrian 2016-17 campaign. There wasn’t much veteran stability on the roster. That’s changed this season with the additions of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. It has the Wolves currently as a top-five seed out west. But in order for the team to take that next step, the recently-extended Wiggins needs to improve his all-around game. He remains one of the worst wing defenders in the NBA, which has led to Minnesota yielding nearly 108 points per game. Can he turn it around moving forward this season? That’s the huge question.

Philadelphia 76ers: Markelle Fultz injury

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have answered any real questions about their injury histories thus far this season. Both are also playing at an exceptionally high level for a surprising Sixers squad. The question now is when Fultz — a rookie No. 1 pick — will return from a shoulder injury that has cost him all but four games this season. The Sixers themselves have provided further updates. But until we see Fultz on the court, there has to be concern that this will be a long-term injury. Considering what we’ve seen from both Embiid and Simmons in the past, that’s not a good thing.

Denver Nuggets: Making a splash?

Now that prized free agent Paul Millsap is out for potentially the next three months with a wrist injury, this question is taken to a whole new level. Recent reports suggest that Denver is confident in its ability to land a disgruntled star from another team prior to February’s trade deadline. It has the young trade chips to do this, but will GM Arturas Karnisovas and Co. go all in? Denver sits at 11-9 on the season and is in firm playoff positioning. The time might be now to add another star player.

Indiana Pacers: Is this the real Victor Oladipo?

The sports world is a reactionary bunch. But when the Pacers traded Paul George to Oklahoma City with Oladipo being the centerpiece of their return, it didn’t seem like Indiana knew what it was doing. Fast forward a few months, and the Pacers actually boast four more wins than OKC.

The question here is whether Oladipo’s otherworldly performance thus far this season is sustainable. He’s averaging a whopping 23.0 points while shooting at a 46 percent clip from distance. Where was this Oladipo in Orlando or Oklahoma? Still only 25 years old, this former No. 2 pick might now be hitting his stride. Whether this specific level of performance is sustainable remains to be seen.

New Orleans Pelicans: DeMarcus Cousins’ status

Caption: Mar 8, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry and forward DeMarcus Cousins (0) talk to referee Ron Garretson (10) in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports Created:

Set to become a free agent after this season, Cousins is most definitely going to test the open market. Sure New Orleans can offer the enigmatic center more than any other team, but there’s going to be a huge market for Cousins. Add in the fact these Pelicans sent a bounty to Sacramento for Cousins last season, and there’s a train of thought that the team might look to move him prior to February’s trade deadline.

At 11-9 on the season, New Orleans is in playoff positioning. Whether this remains the case when the New Year hits remains to be seen. That will likely play a large role in determining whether Cousins is traded.

New York Knicks: Is this success sustainable?

Knicks fans should be jumping for joy that this team is at .500 at the quarter point in the season. It’s the first year of a long-term rebuild with the real King of New York, Kristaps Porzingis, headlining it. But is this progression really sustainable moving forward on the season? Porzingis has played at an elite level. Both Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. have been pleasant surprises.  Though, we have yet to see much from youngsters Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez. What does that say about both the long-term rebuild and New York’s viability this season?

Utah Jazz: Quin Snyder long for the job?

Is it possible that Snyder was riding the coattails of an improved Gordon Hayward last season? While no one really expected Utah to match its 51-win total from last season with Hayward now in Boston, the team just isn’t good this year. Utah sits at 10-11 on the season. Its leading scorer, Rodney Hood, has put up less than 18 points per game. There’s been no real growth from the season opener to now. Does this mean Snyder will be shown the door? Maybe.

Washington Wizards: Time to blow it up?

We’re not talking about John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. here. They represent a trio that should be good enough to at least compete back east. The issue here is two-fold. General manager Ernie Grunfeld has done very little to build a supporting cast behind the three. Meanwhile, head coach Scott Brooks has failed to get the most of this roster. Washington currently sits at 11-9 and as a bottom-rung playoff team. That’s not going to cut it.

Maybe Washington decides to abruptly move on from the two while inserting decision makers that would in turn dissolve a supporting cast that includes the likes of Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre.

Los Angeles Lakers: The Lonzo Ball dynamic

It’s going to take a few years before we realize just how good Ball is going to be. Sure he’s struggled with shooting (31 percent) and has had some maturity issues. But the dude is still just 20 years old and grew up in a very enclosed environment with a helicopter parent in the form of LaVar Ball. Maybe his father needs to start taking a hands-off approach and stop criticizing the Lakers’ coaching staff. In turn, Los Angeles could decide to really throw Lonzo into the fire. For all this kid’s struggles this season, he’s still averaging 8.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game as a rookie. That’s not too shabby, at all.

Milwaukee Bucks: How will Eric Bledsoe fit in?

Milwaukee has posted a pedestrian 5-4 record with Bledsoe in the mix since he was acquired from Phoenix in early November. These types of growing pains are to be expected, especially when we’re looking at a man that’s being asked to run the point. But it’s vital that Bledsoe transitions from his current status as the pupil in a learning curve to being the floor general in Milwaukee. Other Eastern Conference teams are not going to wait for the Bucks to figure this thing out. And at 10-9 on the season, that could spell doom for a top-five seed back east.

Oklahoma City Thunder: One and done?

Since a 4-3 start to the season, the Thunder have lost eight of their past 13 games. Three of those four wins have come against the likes of the Clippers, Mavericks and Bulls. Suffice to say, the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have yet to pay off. With both set to become free agents following the season, one has to wonder whether the trio that includes reigning NBA MVP Russell Westbrook will be one and done. One quarter of the season is a large enough sample size to draw an initial conclusion. How the next quarter goes will tell us pretty much everything we need to know, especially in what remains a top-heavy Western Conference.

Miami Heat: The expensive role players

At just 10-11 on the season, Miami has not picked up where it left off in the second half of last season. Sure the team has performed much better of late, but there’s still major productivity issues behind Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic.

The Heat spent $145-plus million to retain James Johnson and Dion Waiters as well as sign Kelly Olynyk this past summer. Only Johnson has performed anywhere near up the level that the Heat had expected. Without a truly elite duo heading the charge, this supporting cast simply needs to improve. That includes Waiters somehow finding a way to rekindle his performance from what was a contract season last year. He’s hitting on just 40 percent of his shots and is averaging nearly as many turnovers as assists per game.

Los Angeles Clippers: Doc Rivers’ status

Clippers, Doc Rivers

We could focus on Blake Griffin’s injury and its long-term ramifications. But that would be like beating a dead horse. Griffin’s left knee has pretty much always been troublesome. The larger issue here Rivers’ long-term status as head coach. A report came out earlier in the season that he might be on the hot seat. That’s when Los Angeles was mired in a nine-game losing streak. Since then, the Clips have won three consecutive.

Now at 8-11 on the season, there’ still concern in Southern California that Rivers might not be long for the job. Owner Steve Ballmer considered firing him during the summer, only to strip the head coach of his GM duties. Without Chris Paul in the mix, this team might not even be a legitimate playoff contender. If this continues being the case as the season progresses, it would not be a shock if Rivers were indeed fired.

Charlotte Hornets: Finding a winning formula

Dwight Howard is playing exceptional basketball in his first season with the Hornets. Kemba Walker continue to look like a franchise player. Jeremy Lamb is also playing at a higher level than we’ve seen throughout his career. Despite this, Charlotte finds itself at 8-11 on the season and mired in a major slump.

What is head coach Steve Clifford to do here? Does he look to give rookie Malik Monk more playing time? Maybe GM Rich Cho decides that Monk and other members of this team could be used as trade chips to bring in another proven veteran. In any event, the Hornets are much too talented to be among the bottom-rung teams back east.

Memphis Grizzlies: Is GM Chris Wallace the problem?

The firing of head coach David Fizdale tells us a story of a general manager, Chris Wallace, who is looking to consolidate power in Memphis. He simply decided to side with Marc Gasol in a recent spat with the now former head coach. The issue here is that Wallace himself might very well be the problem.

Both of the team’s two 2016 draft picks are no longer with the Grizzlies after they moved on from Wade Baldwin prior to the season. Jarell Martin, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, is averaging just a hair over four points per game. Meanwhile, 2014 first-rounder Jordan Adams is no longer in the league. Add free agent bust Chandler Parsons, and one really has to wonder if Wallace is the problem here.

Orlando Magic: Trade on the horizon?

After starting the season strong with an 8-4 record, the Magic have lost their past 10 games. It’s not what head coach Frank Vogel had hoped would follow a surprising first three weeks. And in reality, it simply might be time for the team to use what are seemingly unending resources to mix things up.

This could include trading one or more of Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. It could also include trading center Nikola Vucevic, who would seemingly be more valuable on a team willing to use his talents more than the Magic have since Vogel’s arrival last season. The status quo isn’t working, and it might now be time for Orlando to change course.

Phoenix Suns: Full-time head coach?

Since the early-season firing of Earl Watson, the Suns have been much more competitive under interim head coach Jay Triano. They currently sit at 8-11 with Triano manning the bench and have seen the likes of Devin Booker as well as T.J. Warren step up their games under his tutelage.

The question now is whether Phoenix will look to make Triano the face of its rebuild. There’s a ton of young talent here, and said talent seems to have bought into his philosophy. Why not give the former Toronto Raptors head coach a chance here?

Brooklyn Nets: Finding the real D’Angelo Russell

Nets' D'Angelo Russell looking to make impact for new team.

Much like Orlando, the Nets have fallen on hard times following a strong start to the season. The team has lost 11 of its past 15 games, a stretch that has coincided with Russell being out due to a knee injury. Once Russell does return, we’re going to want to see if he can continue with what was a strong early-season performance. The former Lakers top-five pick is averaging 20.9 points and 5.7 assists. Maybe he can be the focal point of this long-term rebuild under a young GM in Sean Marks who has seemingly got water from a rock since taking over.

Sacramento Kings: Can the youngsters emerge?

What was seemingly a solid mix of veteran and young talent at season’s start has morphed into more of an awkward mix. While Zach Randolph, George Hill and Vince Carter continue to do their thing, the youngins in Sacramento just have not stepped up like we’ve expected.

Now, with a 6-15 record on the season, it’s clearly time to take the training wheels off these youngsters and see what they can do. This means giving more time to the likes of Skal Labissiere, Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic. What exactly does this team have to lose aside from more games?

Atlanta Hawks: What to do with Dennis Schroder?

We’ve seen the Hawks absolutely blow up what was a contending team just a couple short seasons ago. Gone are the likes of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. They’ve been replaced by an enigmatic point guard in Dennis Schroder, who is now seen as the face of the franchise.

The issue here is that Schroder is nowhere near a No. 1 guy for a contending team. He’s also had his fair share of off-court issues. Do the Hawks look to move him for valuable assets moving forward? That’s the biggest question for an otherwise downtrodden franchise.

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk’s swan song?

Dirk Nowitzki

After 20 seasons with the team, it’s readily apparent that Dirk Nowitzki is playing basketball just to hang on to what has been a Hall of Fame career. It’s also apparent that the Mavs are in full-scale rebuild mode with a 5-16 record on the season. As good has Dirk has been for this franchise, maybe it’s time the two part ways. That could come in the form of the future Hall of Famer either retiring following the season or potentially joining a contender.

Chicago Bulls: Moving on from Fred Hoiberg?

Boasting a league-worst 3-16 record on the season, things have been absolutely miserable in Chicago. This was to be expected after the team moved on from Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade during the summer. But there’s no excuse for the drama we’ve seen in the Windy City and a complete lack of effort.

That was magnified in a 143-94 loss to the Warriors earlier in the season. Golden State was playing without Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in this one. Despite this, the defending champs outscored Chicago by 52 points in the final three quarters. With efforts like this, one has to wonder if Hoiberg is long for the job.