NBA's big offseason questions

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We've reached that slow point in the NBA offseason, where the core of most rosters are set and we can begin to see the potential holes and question marks. This week, the staff of Hardwood Paroxysm unwraps some of those questions in search of answers.


Portland Trail Blazers: Who else besides Damian Lillard?

By Jacob Rosen (@WFNYJacob) — Nylon Calculus

Without LaMarcus Aldridge, the Portland Trail Blazers were unlikely to be a 2015-16 Western Conference playoff team. Given that knowledge, how would you have proceeded? Would you, as a GM, have made substantial investments to retain free agents Robin Lopez and Wes Matthews? That's a great question on its own, but since we all know now what occurred last month, the upcoming task for Portland is to identify secondary building blocks for the future.

Entering his fourth NBA season, Damian Lillard is a mostly known entity. He's 24 and likely doomed to the unlofty-expectations-for-a-rookie-guard-with-high-usage curse for the next several seasons. Yes, the criticism of his defense is fair. It's always important to note how, despite being drafted a year later, he's over a year and a half older than Kyrie Irving. And this season will be a far more difficult challenge for him after losing all of his fellow starters. He'll be the beginning and end of almost every single offensive possession. But he's pretty good. He'll be just fine.

But what else is there in Portland? Here's something I posited recently — does this team, likely to be one of the West's worst, despite a potential annual All-Star in Lillard — have the biggest talent gap between its best and second-best players? Who would you even call the second-best on this oddly constructed team? Gerald Henderson and Chris Kaman are the only other guys to ever average double digits in an NBA season. Someone has to step up big time on this roster.

Will it be Mason Plumlee, with career averages of only 8 points and 5 rebounds in 20 minutes per game? Will it be Al-Farouq Aminu, a quality signing who likely has to play too much at the 3 as opposed to small-ball 4? Will it be C.J. McCollum or Meyers Leonard, returning youngsters who shined in brief playing time last season? Or perhaps new guys Noah Vonleh or Ed Davis, skilled bigs with a chip on their shoulder? Allen Crabbe, injured in summer league, also could fill a scoring void if/when healthy.

Portland made a bunch of other sneaky solid moves, such as picking up Phil Pressey, Moe Harkless, Pat Connaughton, and Cliff Alexander. But this current team is flawed at many positions and lacks any secondary starpower. The key for the season will be to identify who is worth keeping around for the long-term rebuild around Lillard. It won't be an easy task.


Boston Celtics: Is this the year they finally make a big move?

By Austin Peters (@apete1993) — Upside and Motor

Ever since the infamous Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade that blew up the team's core, the Celtics have been in rebuild mode. It has now been two full seasons since then, and the Celtics were able to sneak into the playoffs last year. Danny Ainge has been following the new trend of GMs everywhere: stink for a year or two, nab a franchise cornerstone high in the draft, and collect as many assets (draft picks, good contracts, young players, etc.) as possible.

The problem with all of this is that while Boston has compiled a treasure trove of assets, they aren't necessarily the best team in the league when it comes to this. In my own personal opinion, the Sixers and Nuggets both have arguably better future picks and young talent than Boston does. If a superstar becomes available, let's say DeMarcus Cousins for example, the Celtics might think they're the best suitors but they don't have the most to offer.

Things may have been better if the Celtics didn't make the playoffs last season, seeing as that would've pushed their pick higher and made their future picks look more appealing. Also, knowing that Justise Winslow was available at No. 10 shows how deep this draft was at the top, giving another reason why making the playoffs wasn't ideal. There are long term advantages to making the playoffs, but are they as great as the advantages that come with having higher draft picks if you just get swept in the first round?

The Celtics could very well miss the playoffs this year. The East seems deeper in its own unique and mediocre way, with as many as 14 teams with playoff aspirations. If things break right for teams like it did for Boston last year, then the Celtics could be taking a step back right in the heart of their rebuilding plan, the year that they are supposed to make the leap into contention by drafting or acquiring a superstar.

They don't have the most appealing assets to make that type of blockbuster deal and making the playoffs isn't guaranteed. So is this the year that the Celtics make the step forward like they are supposed to? Or will we see another year of mediocrity? We will just have to wait and see.


Orlando Magic: Can the Magic finally break out?

By Chris Barnewall (@ChrisBarnewall) — Friendly Bounce

Will the Orlando Magic be able to break out and become this team that we all think they should be? For what feels like years now the Magic have been the go to team in the East when asking about bad teams that could make a jump to the playoffs. This has largely been due to a roster full of players that everybody likes, but the fit hasn't always worked. There's a lot of youth on the roster that does some nice things, but nobody has quite made that jump to stardom yet. At the moment, it's still a roster full of role players that are trying to put together wins and make the playoffs. In the East, that might not be a bad thing, but it would be much easier if a go to star managed to emerge for Orlando.

That said, there's hope for a star and identity to emerge this year. Victor Oladipo is in his third year as a pro, Aaron Gordon just spent his summer ripping apart Orlando Summer League, and Elfrid Payton was considered by many as the second best rookie in the NBA last season. Surely, one of these young players, and Tobias Harris on a fresh new contract, can manage to break out and do something right? Well, a lot of that depends on how this roster meshes with new head coach Scott Skiles.

There's a lot of consistencies in Skiles career, such as grating on his players and getting fired three to five years after being hired, but he's also shown the ability to get wins out of defensive minded rosters. Well, the roster he's been given may not have a history of good defense, but it certainly has the athleticism and skill set to be good on that end. Skiles has been given a roster that he can easily print his brand of basketball on, but that's far from a guarantee.

The Magic have been given expectations before, and every time they've failed to meet them. Last year was a catastrophic failure in the eyes of the front office, and there's really no reason to believe it won't happen again outside of experience and a new coach. However, would it really surprise anybody if the Magic once again failed to break out and found themselves at the top of the lottery all over again?


Utah Jazz: Was the second half for real?

By Philip Rossman-Reich (@omagicdaily) — Hardwood Paroxysm

It is play if not everyone noticed the Utah Jazz's second half last year. By the time their run to end the season — 21-11 in the season's second half — they were already more or less out of the playoffs in the extremely heated Western Conference.What they put together to finish the year at 38-44, still seven games shy of the playoffs, was simply incredible.

In the final half of the season, the Jazz led the league in defensive efficiency after the All-Star Break allowing 94.8 points per 100 possessions, nearly five points better than the second place Grizzlies. The team's 6.9 net differential put them fourth after the All-Star Break. Rudy Gobert alone, posted a 98.8 defensive rating while on the floor as part of his second-half emergence (21.9 minutes per game before the All-Star Break to 34.4 minutes per game after).

The Jazz though did not make the Playoffs for as impressive as their renaissance was. They were a nice story with a bunch of young players coming together, but ultimately a footnote in the 2015 season. The question that has to be asked is whether what Quinn Snyder, Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward and the others built was real. Can it be sustained for 82 games in the ridiculously tough Western Conference? Can the Utah Jazz actually make the Playoffs?

Those questions might be getting too far ahead of ourselves, but the Jazz's second half suggested: Yes, yes they can. And Utah seems to believe enough that the team made very few changes to its roster this offseason. This is the same core and virtually the same roster — save for draft pick Trey Lyles.

So was it real? Is what Utah did in the second half of last season sustainable? Is this a Playoff team?

Off the bat, the Jazz will start a little farther back. Dante Exum's torn ACL puts an extreme pressure on Utah. Despite how raw Exum is as a player, Utah's decision to insert him into the starting lineup changed things as much as Gobert's increase in playing time. Utah was 24-17 when Exum started and the team's defense was significantly better with him on the floor as compared to Trey Burke — 99.0 defensive rating with Exum on the floor compared to 104.5 with Burke on the floor.

Even still, the Jazz do not have a bonafide star to carry them. Teams will adjust and learn from what worked late last season. Defenses will get better and find ways to make Gordon Hayward's life difficult.

Still it remains very intriguing to see whether Snyder and Utah can adjust to some expectations and surprise everyone.


Philadelphia 76ers: How will Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor fit together?

By Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) — Hardwood Paroxysm

Until Joel Embiid undergoes his long-awaited second surgery, his mysterious situation is by far the Philadelphia 76ers' biggest question mark. In mid-July, general manager Sam Hinkie said the team anticipated the procedure taking place within the next 7-10 days. One month later, however, the big man has yet to go under the knife.

There's not necessarily reason to panic, though. According to CSNPhilly.com's John Gonzalez, "Embiid and his confidants wanted more time to review the matter and select a doctor," and the procedure is scheduled to take place in "the near future." So, with that potentially explosive situation seemingly nearing a resolution, the Sixers can focus on their other foundational question: How will this year's No. 3 overall pick, Jahlil Okafor, mesh with Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick from 2013?

In theory, Noel and Okafor may be perfect complements for one another, covering up each others' flaws. While Nerlens is a shot-swatting machine, Okafor seems to lack strong defensive instincts. However, the Duke product is an offensive nightmare in the low post, which can help cover up Noel's weaknesses on that end of the court.

Dig a little deeper, though, and there are legitimate questions about the pairing both on offense and defense.

Offensively, Noel and Okafor both work best within 10 feet of the basket. While Okafor thrives on receiving the ball on the low block and going to work one-on-one, Noel is more of a threat on pick-and-rolls and put-back opportunities. Since Okafor's bread and butter will be his low-post game, Noel will need to develop a reliable mid-range jumper or opponents will pack the paint with little hesitation, cutting off any sort of driving lanes for the Sixers' guards.

Defensively, meanwhile, Okafor has the body to bang with 5s, but putting Noel on 4s will be a work in progress. Stretch 4s like Draymond Green and Nikola Mirotic will draw the Kentucky product away from the basket, negating his shot-blocking prowess and leaving Okafor to fend for himself against veteran NBA bigs with plenty of tricks up their sleeves. Okafor doesn't have the foot speed to defend 4s, however, so head coach Brett Brown will need to figure out a way to tap into Noel's defensive talents even when he drifts away from the paint.

If the Noel-Okafor pairing develops chemistry on both ends of the court, the Sixers won't be nearly as much of a laughingstock in 2015-16 as they have been the past two seasons. If that duo fails to coincide, however, Hinkie and Co. will be left with far more questions than answers when it comes to figuring out how to advance the team's ongoing rebuild.


Eastern Conference: Who steps up?

By Dan Lewis (@minutemandan) — Hardwood Paroxysm

The Atlanta Hawks surprised the league last season, rocketing to the top of the conference and the number one seed with a 60-win season. The Cleveland Cavaliers took advantage of their talented lineup and finished second, with 53 wins. The Chicago Bulls got 51 games from Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler had a breakout season, and Nikola Mirotic finished the season strong.

Those were the only three teams to finish with 50 wins in the Eastern Conference last season (Toronto had 49), while the Western Conference had seven teams with 50 wins, with the Pelicans finishing with 45 to secure the final playoff seed. The offseason brought change, but it looks like the top of the Eastern Conference will likely remain unchanged. The Cavs have LeBron, the Hawks will look to adapt without DeMarre Carroll while the Raptors figure out how to use their new small forward, and the Bulls return most of last year's cast under a new director in Fred Hoiberg.

What I'm curious to see happen is which teams make up the final four seeds in the playoffs. Six teams finished with between 30-40 wins last season, and that makes for a lot of teams that could realistically challenge for a playoff spot.

The Milwaukee Bucks added Greg Monroe, and get Jabari Parker back after the franchise forward tore his ACL during his rookie season. They've got length for days, with a projected starting lineup of Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Parker, and Monroe. Can Jason Kidd take a young team and help them capture homecourt? This team has major sleeper potential.

The Miami Heat are going to be much better this season. Hassan Whiteside has had a full offseason to consider ways to improve his NBA2K ratings and work on his game, Chris Bosh will be healthy, Goran Dragic has a long-term contract, and Justise Winslow was a steal for them at No. 10 in the draft. While their starting lineup is better than a lot of Eastern Conference teams, there are questions for their bench. If the Heat can get a healthy Josh McRoberts this year, watch him make a difference for this team and help lead the reserves to respectability. Amar'e Stoudemire and Chris Andersen have lost their explosiveness, but won't be a huge minus for the team in limited minutes. If Justise Winslow is a dynamic playmaker off the bench, the Heat could contend for a top-four seed and potentially put a scare on the Atlanta Hawks for the top seed in the division.

The last team that I project will be much better this year is the Detroit Pistons. Lead by Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons are going to move on from Greg Monroe and give the keys to Andre Drummond. The Pistons welcome nine new players to training camp, having traded for Marcus Morris, Steve Blake, Reggie Bullock, Danny Granger, Ersan Ilyasova, Reggie Jackson, signing Aron Baynes, and drafting Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard. The lineup is faster, deeper, and more balanced around their franchise big man. Ersan Ilyasova and his 453 career games is the most experienced projected starter, with young wings Stanley Johnson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rounding out the starting unit. Jackson balled out of his mind after getting traded to the Pistons, averaging 19.7 points and 10.3 assists per game in 32 minutes per game with his new team. With better talent around him him, and Ilyasova stretching the floor, Jackson could be a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate and could put up Chris Paul-like numbers. The Pistons have a challenging division, and will need to win games on the road against conference opponents if they want to make the playoffs, beating out Indiana Pacers to avoid the basement of the division.

The Eastern Conference has a lot of questions, and it'll be fun to see which teams step up and improve from last season. There's going to be injuries that derail teams' plans, breakout players, and bonkers buzzer-beaters, but that's the way the NBA is. It's going to be a fun ride.


Toronto Raptors: How will they fill a power forward need?

By Kevin Yeung (@KevinHFY) — Hardwood Paroxysm

On leaving the Toronto Raptors this summer, Lou Williams said, "I think they wanted to go in a different direction and become more of a defensive-minded team." When Dwane Casey and the Raptors made their pitch to DeMarre Carroll in free agency, it was, "We need you. You're a defensive guy. We want to be a defensive team."

Carroll is slated to start, becoming the perimeter stopper that the Raptors were missing with DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross at the wing positions. Joining him as newcomers to the team this offseason are Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, both plus defenders at their positions that will support the bench. After finishing 25th in defensive efficiency last season, the Raptors are setting themselves up for improvement.

Except there's a gaping hole that they haven't addressed yet. Amir Johnson, last year's starter at power forward, departed to sign with the Boston Celtics. Patrick Patterson is his likely successor, but he tops out as a middling defender – mobile enough for Dwane Casey's aggressive pick-and-roll schemes, but invisible as a rebounder and rim protector. Jonas Valanciunas might make up some of the difference on the boards, but there's no question that Patterson is a downgrade from Johnson on that end. Let's not even get into the possibility that Luis Scola starts.

The Raptors were transparent about wanting to improve on defense this summer, and they'll never allow a Patterson-Valanciunas frontcourt to undermine those efforts for long. Masai Ujiri has plenty of trade assets to play around with: the Raptors have all of their own first-round draft picks as well as the lower pick of New York and Denver's first-rounders next year, Valanciunas and Terrence Ross entering the final year of their rookie contracts with extensions yet to be signed, and a mishmash of first-round prospects filling out the roster.

Among names recently circulated in trade rumors, the Raptors should poke around Markieff Morris, despite lingering questions regarding his professionalism. He's better known for his wide-ranging palette of offensive skills, but brings a dash of versatility on the other end as well – the bulk to bang in the post, and the foot speed to maneuver in pick-and-roll coverage. Like Patterson, Morris is no rim protector and a poor rebounder, but he's a two-way player on one of the best value contracts in the league. Other players of interest might include the burgeoning Cody Zeller, Terrence Jones, Darrell Arthur, Nene and Taj Gibson (although Arthur won't be trade-eligible until December 14th, and Nene and Gibson belong to East contenders unlikely to help out a rival).

More names will surely crop up as the season kicks into gear, and the Raptors are well-positioned to talk trades. For now, the Raptors still likely stack up better than last year defensively, and that'll do as they continue to stockpile plus defenders at every position. With so many potential answers, this is a question that Ujiri can leave open-ended for now.

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