One burning question facing each NBA team heading into 2016-17 season

Which musician's face will Kevin Durant get tattooed on his body next? Why has nobody signed two-time NBA champion Matt Bonner? Can anybody name seven Brooklyn Nets off the top of his or her head? As the NBA's regular season approaches, there are all sorts of questions that demand answers. With that in mind, we decided to tackle the big questions that will define 2016-17 for each of the league's 30 teams.

team.jpg
There is no shortage of questions needing answers around the league. CBS Sports Original

SOUTHWEST


New Orleans Pelicans

  • Did they get better in reality while worse on paper?

The Pels lost big-name players in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, but they added value free agents like Solomon Hill and E'Twaun Moore (who has lit it up in preseason). That could make them more balanced, with better defenders who can also shoot, or it could mean they just aren't as good as they were last year, when they weren't good to begin with.

This is a monster year for how we evaluate Anthony Davis. He has to be spectacular, on both ends, and also impactful (there's a difference) for them to return to the playoffs. He really has to lead this season. -- Matt Moore

Houston Rockets

  • What level of defense is necessary for a playoff spot?

The offense is going to rock. James Harden looks to have bought in on Mike D'Antoni's system, and a revamped bench is going to put up astronomical offensive numbers if they stay healthy.

The question is defense. For Houston to make the playoffs, it needs to be at least within range of average, 15th in the league, per possession. The Rockets' per game defensive numbers will be skewed in D'Antoni's up-tempo system, but they have to play some level of efficient defense, or at least, not-patently-surrender-points-like-the-Titanic-taking-on-water defense.

They brought in Jeff Bdzelik as defensive coordinator and the team is adamant they are not going to just ignore that side of the ball. But D'Antoni's history -- players have consistently said they simply did not practice defense -- combined with James Harden's reputation leaves this on a precipice. They cannot let go of the rope. -- Matt Moore

Memphis Grizzlies

  • Will health issues derail their season again?

With Memphis, this was always going to be the biggest issue coming in and going out. Chandler Parsons is recovering from yet another knee injury, and had microfracture surgery last summer. Mike Conley has had foot issues for several seasons and finally Achilles problems ended his year. Marc Gasol is coming back off a broken foot one of about three injuries you absolutely never want to see your star center go down with.

Oh, and the fun continues. Vince Carter, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph are all far from spring chickens. The biggest issue is that Memphis has rebuilt its depth with quality young players, but they are meant, specifically, for those reserve roles. Being pushed into bigger spots could be disastrous, from rookie point guard James Baldwin to rookie center Deyonta Davis (who is also injured at the moment). There are a lot of ways things go sideways for Memphis if it catches the injury bug again after having to have an NBA-record 28 players on roster last year. -- Matt Moore

Dallas Mavericks

  • How much do you trust Rick Carlisle?

Carlisle has taken worse teams than this into the playoffs. He's been hampered with worse, and done enough to reach the playoffs. This roster has major holes. Deron Williams and Devin Harris are the point guards. Wesley Matthews came on strong late last season, but recovering from Achilles injuries at his age is difficult. Dirk Nowitzki is no spring chicken, despite how good he was last year. Harrison Barnes is a question mark and Andrew Bogut has had trouble staying on the floor. -- Matt Moore

San Antonio Spurs

    • How much will losing the best player in franchise history hurt?

    The Spurs lost Tim Duncan, and given his limited minutes and age, there's a perception that his departure won't hurt. It will. Duncan was still great defensively last year, central the Spurs being a top-five unit. Losing Duncan and trading Boris Diaw while adding Pau Gasol is a borderline net negative. But beyond the on-court matter, adjusting to life without Duncan, even with him around the team, will be difficult. -- Matt Moore

    Mike D'Antoni and James Harden at media day
    How much worse can the defense get for James Harden and the Rockets under Mike D'Antoni? USATSI

    NORTHWEST


    Denver Nuggets

    • How long will Kenneth Faried be on the roster?

    With young and talented bigs in Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Danilo Gallinari and the return of Wilson Chandler, it's looking more and more like Kenneth Faried will be the odd man out in Denver. Faried has seemingly been on the trade block for the last couple of seasons but this may be the year the Nuggets finally move him. At just 26 years old, Faried is still a quality player. He is a good rebounder and provides energy on both ends of the court with his seemingly never-going-to-stop motor. Faried could be a good addition to a title-contending team looking for a rugged rebounder and energy player to come off the bench. The Nuggets of course don't have to trade Faried, especially if he is OK with a reduced role. Yet Faried is basically a non-essential core player in Denver and the Nuggets may need to trade him before his value plummets. -- Ananth Pandian

    Portland Trail Blazers

    • Can the Blazers legitimately take the next step?

    With the Blazers losing four of their five starters, expectations were quite low for them last season. The Blazers, however, believed in themselves and surprised everyone by not only making the playoffs but reaching the second round. Now that those low expectations are lifted, Portland will surely be a playoff team in the West yet again. However, the upper echelon teams in the West are still there. While the Blazers simply added Festus Ezeli, who won't be healthy till a month or two into the season, and Evan Turner, they are also still not a great defensive team and Lillard can only take them so far. -- Ananth Pandian

    Minnesota Timberwolves

    • What's up with Ricky Rubio?

    Minnesota drafted Kris Dunn in June, making it seem like Rubio's tenure in Minnesota will be coming to an end at some point soon. Dunn will take some time to develop though and he won't be given a starting role right away. That's still Rubio's job but for how long remains in question.

    Rubio has a history of injury problems but was healthy for the most part last season and averaged 10 points and 8.7 assists in 72 games. He is still just 26 years old and while Rubio hasn't turned into an All-Star or even one of the better point guards in the league, he is still a fine player and should be in for another good season. However, if Dunn shows promise rather quickly, it wouldn't be surprising if Minnesota started shopping Rubio more heavily than its done in the past. -- Ananth Pandian

    Oklahoma City Thunder

    • How long will the spectre of Kevin Durant hang over OKC?

    The Thunder will likely still be a playoff team and perhaps even win the Northwest, but throughout it all, get ready to constantly hear about Durant signing with the Warriors whenever anything negative happens with Oklahoma City. This will especially be the case if Russell Westbrook ever makes a glaring mistake on the court or perhaps whenever the Thunder lose. How long this type of criticism goes on is up to Westbrook and the Thunder though. If the Thunder immediately show that they're still an upper echelon team in the West, then the criticism will be muted. If not, then the constant reminder of Durant not being there may haunt the Thunder all season long. -- Ananth Pandian

    Utah Jazz

    • Can they overcome the injury bug?

    For the last couple of seasons, the Jazz have been on the verge of making the playoffs but then an injury takes down a key member of their team derailing their postseason hopes. Last season it was Rudy Gobert and Alec Burks. Now, already before the start of the season, Gordon Hayward is out with a broken finger and Derrick Favors is dealing with left knee soreness. Staying healthy is obviously something the Jazz can't control. Luckily for Utah, it has significant depth this season with Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson and even Dante Exum, so if someone goes down, the Jazz should be able to weather any absence. -- Ananth Pandian

    ricky0630.jpg
    Will the Wolves decide to turn to the future and part ways with Ricky Rubio? USATSI

    PACIFIC


    Golden State Warriors

    • How much talent is too much?

    There's not much to ask other than this, silly as it sounds.

    We've seen some power teams coalesce immediately (the 2007-08 Celtics started 29-3), some take more time (the 2010-11 Heat started 9-8) and some disintegrate into total dysfunction (2012-13 Lakers of Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant went 45-37 and got swept in the first round).

    The Warriors' blend of personalities and performers would seem immune to the usual internal issues, and Kevin Durant appears determined not to overstep, especially early. Steve Kerr and his staff have created a culture that has somehow de-emphasized ego, even with a two-time MVP on a roster, one who takes what might be selfish shots for someone else. Still, we'll see how some players (Klay Thompson in particular) adjust to their altered opportunities, and whether they keep any misgivings from the media Gremlins multiplying in the Bay. -- Ethan Skolnick

    Los Angeles Clippers

    • Can a First Team All-NBA center get better?

    Doc Rivers has come off as Deandre Jordan's campaign manager, endorsing the nine-year veteran for just about every honor but a Clio Award, which Jordan may have actually deserved for his work -- sometimes in drag -- in those State Farm commercials. Now the Clippers coach is saying that Jordan views himself as a superstar after a strong Olympic showing, but the question is really whether Rivers really sees the center that way on the offensive end.

    Jordan's shots haven't experienced much of a growth spurt the past four seasons (6.0 to 6.3 to 6.5 to 6.6), even as he's made nearly 70 percent, and even after the promises of an expanded role when he reversed course and returned to the Clippers in 2015. He might get more touches if he could convert 50 percent of his free throws, but he's 0-for-4 in his last four seasons in achieving that. -- Ethan Skolnick

    It's up to Jordan to show there's more to this core.

    Phoenix Suns

    • How do they settle the point guard situation?

    Here they are again.

    Two years after they had to slide Goran Dragic to small forward in spots, to accommodate Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe, the Suns still have an uncomfortable surplus at the position, with Bledsoe healthy -- momentarily -- and Brandon Knight stuck with a Sixth Man spot so that blooming star Devin Booker can start. Knight is a volume scorer, but not an especially efficient one (just 40.7 percent during his stay with the Suns) and even at age 24, he doesn't appear part of the long-term nucleus, just as he didn't in Detroit or Milwaukee. They'll likely play some together early, at least until P.J. Tucker is healthy, with Booker moving up a spot, and Bledsoe taking the toughest defensive assignment.

    Even so, it would be surprising if Knight isn't moved at some, well, point. -- Ethan Skolnick

    Los Angeles Lakers

    • Can D'Angelo Russell take control now that Kobe's gone?

    The Mamba has released his deathgrip on the franchise, allowing Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, among others, to slither out. It's Russell, though, who has the most to gain, since he wasn't just dealing with the Kobe System, but also the (Byron) Scott Shutdown, as the since-fired coach kept putting the 2015 No. 2 overall pick in timeout. Russell didn't exactly exude leadership as a rookie, with that whole taping-a-teammate thing, and plenty of on-court timidity.

    But the reset -- in summer league and the preseason -- has been promising, as he's shown more assertiveness. The court vision is there, even if the electric first step isn't, and he figures to improve upon his 35.1 percent three-point shooting. He's been working on a post game, and he's even learned to give himself a high-five when teammates turn away. Bryant praised Russell's development this summer, though Russell revealed in early September that they hadn't communicated since the end of last season. Without a recording to prove otherwise, just say this: the key now is how Russell communicates on the court, and earns the respect of those still around. -- Ethan Skolnick

    Sacramento Kings

    • How will DeMarcus Cousins and Dave Joerger connect?

    Well, this should matter, though it didn't for Mike Malone, who earned Cousins' admiration -- and thus avoiding any snake in the grass emojis -- but was fired for philosophical differences with the front office. Malone's ouster was the most merciful possible end, considering the Kings' continued incoherence and chaos since.

    The Kings' monstrously talented man in the middle has been in the middle of much of the turmoil. Now, after Cousins conducted himself well during the Olympics, the defensive-minded Dave Joerger arrives from Memphis, where he was entrusted with some edgy actors, if none quite like Cousins. He'll be Cousins' sixth coach in six seasons and, even with a four-year deal, any sense of security in Sacramento is illusory. Cousins has this year, and next, left on his contract, and the Kings have resisted trade overtures, though that could change if they are resigned to him not re-signing. So the odds are against Joerger coaching him for more than 141 games, Keith Smart's record that now registers as a minor miracle. What else would be? Joerger finding the button that gets Cousins to dominate without detonating. -- Ethan Skolnick

    How long before DeMarcus Cousins' antics get under the skin of the Kings' new coach? USATSI

    ATLANTIC


    Toronto Raptors

    • How much will the Raptors miss Bismack Biyombo?

    Biyombo was essential to Toronto's success last year. He capably started in place of the injured Jonas Valanciunas for 22 games in the regular season, defending and rebounding at an elite level before becoming a playoff hero. The Raptors couldn't retain DeMar DeRozan and give Biyombo a competitive offer in free agency, so now they'll have to make up for the loss of his rim protection, energy and ability to switch pick-and-rolls.

    "Last year we were able to be 0.8 of a second late or even a second late and Biz would be that good to clean it up," Kyle Lowry said early in training camp, via the Toronto Sun's Mike Ganter. "Now this year we have to be a second early, 8/10th of a second early to make sure we cover up for the shot blocking that we don't have."

    Jared Sullinger, who will likely start at power forward, is the favorite to be Toronto's primary backup center. It's no coincidence that CBS Sports' Matt Moore called Sullinger its most important defender -- if he can be where he needs to be defensively, use his quick hands and rebound like he normally does, then the downgrade in shot-blocking doesn't have to be a big deal.

    Several young players also have a chance to earn playing time. This is likely a make-or-break season for 7-footer Lucas Nogueira, who has spent the last two years mostly at the end of the Raptors' bench. Rookies generally don't make a positive impact defensively, but Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam could both be exceptions to that rule.

    Perhaps the most important player to watch, though, is Valanciunas. Toronto has touted him as a future defensive anchor for years, but opponents shot 52.2 percent against him at the rim last season, per NBA.com's SportVU stats. For context, opponents at the rim shot 51.5 percent against Greg Monroe, 48.6 percent against Nerlens Noel, 45.2 percent against Biyombo and 41 percent against Rudy Gobert. This would be a perfect time for Valanciunas to make good on his defensive potential. -- James Herbert

    Boston Celtics

    • Is this Marcus Smart's year?

    The Celtics can improve without the 22-year-old Smart making a huge leap in his third season. They've brought back most of last season's 48-win roster and added the second-best free agent on the market in Al Horford, who should fit in extremely well. Also, No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown provides some extra athleticism and defensive versatility. There is, however, an opportunity for Smart to take on a more significant role.

    Forget the fact that second-year guard Terry Rozier said he wants all of Evan Turner's minutes. Turner's departure means that Smart has a chance to lead the second unit. Beyond being much stronger than the average guard, Smart is beloved in Boston for his competitiveness and fearless defense. This is a player who defended Kristaps Porzingis despite being almost a full foot shorter than him during a regular-season game, then drew the challenge of slowing down a red-hot Paul Millsap in the playoffs (and succeeded!).

    This is also a player who shot 34.8 percent last season, including a miserable 25.3 percent from deep while launching 4.0 3-pointers per game. Credit coach Brad Stevens for giving him the green light as he develops, but at some point Smart has to make defenses pay for ignoring him on the perimeter.

    "That's what me and coach Stevens and Danny [Ainge] have been talking about a lot is becoming more consistent from outside and create a lot more open space for me to drive the lane," Smart said recently, per the Boston Globe's Steve Bulpett. "Developing this shot and becoming more consistent is going to make a lot of teams have to play me and play me as a shooter and respect me from the outside."

    The good news: Boston has a nice model for Smart. Avery Bradley was seen as a defensive specialist for his first few years in the league, but he never stopped working on his offensive game. In 2013-14, his 3-point percentage shot up from 31.7 percent to 39.5 percent. Smart's upside is higher than Bradley's, as long as he shows he can handle increased playmaking responsibility. -- James Herbert

    Brooklyn Nets

    • Can Brook Lopez take much more of this?

    Still with the franchise that drafted him in 2008, Lopez is the only Net who can remember the days of Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and actual expectations. Swingman Bojan Bogdanovic is the only one of his teammates who was on the roster two years ago under coach Lionel Hollins. At 28 years old, Lopez has just two playoff appearances on his resume, and it looks like it could be a while before he's back there.

    Lopez is by far Brooklyn's best player, and the franchise is just starting a painful rebuilding process that will not even include high draft picks. You might expect him to be miserable. You wouldn't blame him if he demanded a trade. Instead, he has just kept doing his thing, averaging 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds last year with nobody paying attention. In the summer, he followed the Nets' new athletic performance department's orders, cutting out sugary food.

    "I don't like to talk about it, it's so sad,'' Lopez said, via the New York Post's Brian Lewis. "My Achilles' heel when it comes to my diet are Slurpees, Icees, like Sonic Route 44 slushes with the Nerds or popping candy inside. That had to take a backseat."

    It's a new era in Brooklyn, and new coach Kenny Atkinson brings his strong track record of developing talent in Atlanta. There's no pressure to win now, but the hope is that Atkinson and his staff will establish a more professional culture and get the team going in the right direction. Lopez can be one of the leaders ... as long as his patience doesn't wear out. -- James Herbert

    New York Knicks

    • What's next for Kristaps Porzingis?

    Porzingis' skills are freaky. He is 7-foot-3, but he moves like a man a foot shorter. He's a pick-and-pop weapon, plus he loves to attack the basket. If he was on a normal team, the front office would be focused on acquiring players who complement him, making sure that nothing would get in the way of him reaching his potential.

    Porzingis, however, is not on a normal team. He's a Knick. Instead of surrounding Porzingis with teammates who could peak when he does, the front office has acquired a bunch of veterans with the objective of getting back to the playoffs as soon as possible. It's unclear if that will work, and it's unclear what this means for Year 2 of the Porzingis experience.

    Carmelo Anthony is going to remain New York's No. 1 option. Derrick Rose is going to have the ball in his hands all the time. Porzingis might have developed as a pick-and-roll finisher and a post-up player, but are we even going to see it?

    If things go right, Porzingis could be an All-Star and the Knicks could challenge for a playoff berth. If they don't, then the team -- and its most prized prospect in years -- could stagnate. -- James Herbert

    Philadelphia 76ers

    • Will Joel Embiid live up to the hype?

    In an otherwise meaningless preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday, The Process threw down a tomahawk dunk 35 seconds into the first quarter. Later, The Process swatted 5-foot-9 Cavs rookie Kay Felder's layup attempt, making him look even smaller. Then, The Process effortlessly drained a 26-foot 3-pointer, impressive for a 7-foot-2 center.

    It's all on display. Joel Embiid is showing Sixers fans and critics alike that he was well worth the wait. The No. 3 pick of the 2014 draft would have been No. 1 if not for the broken navicular bone in his right foot, and, after missing two full seasons, he appears ready to help Philadelphia immediately. He might even be the favorite to win Rookie of the Year.

    There are several other questions hanging over the Sixers' season: Will president Bryan Colangelo clear up the frontcourt logjam with a trade or two? Will Ben Simmons come back from his broken foot to contribute as a rookie? Can Jahlil Okafor show that he can defend, rebound and pass at the NBA level, even a little bit? None of these things, though, matter nearly as much as how Embiid's season goes.

    Regardless of Philadelphia's record, if Embiid stays healthy and looks like a future franchise player, this year will be a success. It's way too early, though, to know whether or not there are more setbacks to come. -- James Herbert

    Can Brook Lopez tolerate playing for the Nets much longer? USATSI

    CENTRAL


    Cleveland Cavaliers

    • How seriously will they take the regular season?

    The Cavs won the top seed in the Eastern Conference by just one game last year. For the second season in a row, they entered the NBA Finals against Golden State as the underdogs. With the Warriors saying that they're not going to chase history again, this could be an opportunity for Cleveland to earn home-court advantage throughout the postseason.

    As incredible as it was when the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit and won Game 7 at Oracle Arena, they'd surely prefer not to have to take that road again. If the defending champs do meet Golden State again in June, they could use any edge they can get.

    The risk, of course, is that they're one of the oldest teams in the league. Considering how many minutes LeBron James has played, his continued dominance is unprecedented. The 36-year-old Richard Jefferson almost retired after winning the title, and the newly acquired Mike Dunleavy is only a few months younger than Jefferson. Floor-spacing big man Channing Frye is 33 and backup center Chris Andersen is 38. This might mean that Cleveland will pace itself again. -- James Herbert

    Chicago Bulls

    • What happens to the defense now?

    In the Bulls' first preseason game, coach Fred Hoiberg elected to start Taj Gibson next to Robin Lopez in the frontcourt. This seemed insane, as all anybody's said about Chicago this summer is that it doesn't have enough shooting. You can understand Hoiberg at least experimenting with this, though, when you start thinking about the other end of the court.

    The Bulls finished 15th in defensive rating last season. With the roster they have now, it's going to be a challenge just to stay in the middle of the pack. Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade's best days appear to be behind them defensively, and the days of Chicago being defined by tough defense are probably over.

    Star swingman Jimmy Butler remains one of the best wing stoppers in the league. Gibson will battle bigger players and switch onto smaller ones. Lopez is a smart positional defender. As Hoiberg searches for lineups that can space the floor, he's going to have to figure out how to keep some defenders out there, too. -- James Herbert

    Milwaukee Bucks

    • Can this team survive without Khris Middleton?

    One of the few players in the NBA who has genuinely improved every year that he's been in the league, Middleton could be an All-Star if he takes another jump. Unfortunately, he tore his hamstring in training camp and had to have surgery, which will keep him sidelined until late in the regular season. This sent the Bucks scrambling -- they traded for Michael Beasley and reportedly tried to get Ben McLemore, too.

    Middleton is not a household name, but he is essential to Milwaukee's plan. His shooting, length and underrated passing make him a perfect complement to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker -- two players who don't naturally fit together on their own. Without Middleton, the Bucks have to hope that one or both of those 21-year-olds becomes a true 3-point threat.

    In you're into positive thinking, then you might point out that Middleton's injury will give opportunities to rookie Malcolm Brogdon and second-year shooting guard Rashad Vaughn. It could also force coach Jason Kidd to keep Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic on the floor as much as possible, which was probably a good plan regardless. The reality, though, is that Milwaukee's path to the playoffs is much more difficult now. -- James Herbert

    Indiana Pacers

    • Will Indy actually push the pace?

    The Pacers were the 10th-fastest team in the league last season, and president Larry Bird wants them to be faster. That's at least part of the reason why Frank Vogel has been replaced. Late last season, Indiana settled on a starting lineup featuring two traditional big men rather than forcing Paul George or C.J. Miles to try to play power forward.

    Vogel's Pacers were third in defensive efficiency and 23rd in offensive efficiency despite Bird's public proclamations that they would be more exciting. They ran more, but they still won games because of their tough defense. It was almost enough to beat the second-seeded Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs, but Indiana gave away Game 5 in the fourth quarter and couldn't upset the Raptors in Game 7.

    Enter Nate McMillan, a head coach for the first time since the Portland Trail Blazers fired him in 2012. His teams have historically scored efficiently, but never quickly. And while the acquisitions of Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young indicate that the Pacers do indeed want to run, signing plodding center Al Jefferson does not.

    It's obvious that this team will look much different than it has in recent years. No one, however, knows if its plan will work. -- James Herbert

    Detroit Pistons

    • Can their franchise player make the leap?

    Stan Van Gundy knows that 13th in defensive efficiency is not good enough. The Pistons president and coach said before a recent preseason game that they need to force more turnovers, contest more shots and contain pick-and-rolls better if they want to get out of the middle of the pack. It's a team thing, but Van Gundy pointed to one player who can help them make a big jump: Andre Drummond.

    "He has the biggest impact on our defense," Van Gundy said. "Everything he does, his pick-and-roll defense, but especially if his basket protection would change, that would change us a great deal."

    Drummond, still just 23, has been in the league for four years. He's 6-foot-11, with a combination of strength and speed that is almost unmatched in the history of the NBA. With his athleticism, there's no reason he shouldn't be an elite defender. Van Gundy said that "a lot of it is mentality," and Drummond needs to just go challenge more shots. He also said that Detroit's defense needs to build more trust when it comes to help defense.

    Van Gundy brought up Dwight Howard leading his great defensive teams in Orlando and winning Defensive Player of the Year three years in a row. He said that Drummond is the Pistons' "key guy at the defensive end," clearly hoping that similar success is in his future. Already an All-Star, and now with a five-year maximum contract, Drummond can become a true superstar by becoming a dominant defender. -- James Herbert

    Do the Cavs have what it takes to lock up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs? USATSI

    SOUTHEAST


    Miami Heat

    • Can this 'underrated' bunch sneak into the playoffs?

    You have to think, that by some evaluation, Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Erik Spoelstra are underrated. But for the Heat to return to the playoffs, they need all those guys to be better than expected. Can Miami actually rely on Whiteside to be emotionally and tactically reliable? Is Dragic ready to be "the guy" again for a team? Can Spoelstra drag a squad featuring Derrick Williams and Wayne Ellington and relying on a second-year player (Winslow) as its best wing player into a top-tier defensive team?

    The Heat have to validate every pundit who has said their roster and coaching is underrated, or it could get rough. -- Matt Moore

    Atlanta Hawks

    • What should we expect from Dwight?

    They replaced Al Horford with Dwight Howard, and from a casual fan perspective, it's a monster upgrade. However, anyone who's paid attention to basketball over the last five years will call it a catastrophic downgrade. Not only did the Hawks sell Howard on signing, but they pitched him as a key focal point. None of this made sense given how Mike Budenholzer has coached the team with ball movement, 5-out play and smart play built around skill and not athleticism. Yet here we are, as Budenholzer was the one leading the charge for Howard.

    Can Dwight step in and be anything close to the guy he was back in 2011? Is he really more mature, or will he always be the goofball who gets on teammates' nerves? There are other questions, like why they replaced long-time, productive starter Jeff Teague with Dennis Schröder, who is talented but has shown no ability to run an offense, but really, it all comes down to Howard. If he makes it look like signing him was a coup, the Hawks will once again best expectations as they have the past two seasons. -- Matt Moore

    Charlotte Hornets

    • How good can they be defensively with a real-life rim protector?

    The Hornets went out and nabbed Roy Hibbert off the salvage pile, and everyone pretty much thinks he's done after being a key component of that Pacers team which was one of the best defensive units of the last decade. Steve Clifford has never been a head coach with this kind of rim protection; he's always relied on a collapse-and-recover system which is really impressive because a lot of units that try that approach get torched from the perimeter. They've got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back, Nicolas Batum is a good defender and Kemba Walker is nowhere close to a liability. But if having a rim protector in Hibbert (and he is always going to be good at that due to size) allows them to defend the perimeter better and maybe send MKG some help when he's on an island against LeBron or Melo (poor thing), we could be looking at a top-five defensive unit, and one that could surprise to challenge for a top-four seed in the East. -- Matt Moore

    Washington Wizards

    • Are there fatal cracks in this team's foundation?

    There are a lot of reasons to try and stay away from the Wiz, because you have to fear collateral damage from the implosion. Bradley Beal and John Wall have outright admitted they don't like one another on the floor, Marcin Gortat sounds like he's about had it with all the locker room politics and they are crushingly absent veteran leadership on the bench. Scott Brooks has always been good with situations like this, but he's also had huge advantages in Kevin Durant's sterling character and Nick Collison's steady workman-like approach. But if things start to slip, you get the feeling it won't be a stumble, but a mudslide that could result in widespread overhaul to the team and front office. They have the talent to make a run in the East, but the chemistry to crack and crumble if things go badly. -- Matt Moore

    What are the chances Dwight Howard will be a perfect fit for the Hawks? USATSI

    Orlando Magic

    • Can Frank Vogel make this offensively-challenged roster work?

    So the Magic moved Aaron Gordon to the three, even though he's clearly a stretch four and has played better there the past two seasons. They want to make him into Paul George, only he's not a great shooter and struggles with handle and creating. They have Nikola Vucevic and Serge Ibaka, which makes a lot of sense together -- Ibaka covers for Vucevic's rim protection problems -- but then they went out and gave Bismack Biyombo a bazillion dollars ... why? Oh, and Elfrid Payton still can't shoot, they signed Jeff Green for some reason and Evan Fournier is their highest-paid player. (Fournier's contract makes perfect sense on the market and he was very good last year, but it just helps to throw that in there when discussing Orlando's craziness.)

    They are low on skill players, high on athleticism, but haven't put that athleticism in key spots, and they have almost no one who can create his own shot. Seriously, what is this team? Frank Vogel has done a great job pulling things together with what looked like tough rosters in Indiana, but he's going to need to be Gandalf the White to make this squad into something that can survive offensively ... which was a struggle for Vogel's Pacers teams to begin with. -- Matt Moore

    Our Latest Stories