We're a little more than a week away from the NBA's Feb. 7 trade deadline. People I've heard from around the league expect this to be a trade season with relatively few fireworks; that's to be expected with the bunched-up nature of the West making it so only two teams are more than six games out of the playoff race, and with the lack of depth in the East making it so only four teams in that conference are tanking.
That means 24 out of the 30 teams in the NBA have realistic chances of making the playoffs. This trade season, there are far more buyers than sellers.
In the meantime, there are big questions surrounding every team between now and the end of the regular season. Will DeMarcus Cousins help the Golden State Warriors shed the team's up-and-down nature of the first half of their season and continue to be the unstoppable force we've seen for most the past five years, and for the past 10 games when they've gone undefeated? Will the New Orleans Pelicans come to grips with reality and find that the time to deal Anthony Davis has come? Will Kyrie Irving's Boston Celtics live up to the preseason hype and become the favorite to make the Finals from the East, despite an inconsistent season?
Of course, this is the NBA, so any predictions only last as long as the news cycle. On Monday morning, reports surfaced that Davis had requested a trade from the Pelicans and said he didn't plan to sign an extension with the team. That turns what appeared to be a sleepy trade deadline devoid of sellers into a trade deadline where one of the most valuable assets in the NBA is now officially on the block. It'll be an interesting 10 days.
Here, in our latest Power Rankings, are the single biggest questions facing each NBA team between now and the end of the regular season.
|Single biggest question: Will anybody important get injured for their playoff run? Because if not, the Warriors may just cruise through the playoffs without losing a game. I'm serious. The return of Boogie Cousins, coupled with the Warriors return to full health, has led to their current 10-game winning streak. Enjoy the ride. We're witnessing history.||1|
|Single biggest question: Will the formula that's brought Mike Budenholzer's Bucks so much regular-season success (spread the floor with shooters, let Giannis drive to the hoop) work in the playoffs? My guess is it will, because this team's success isn't just based on a simple formula of Giannis surrounded by shooters. It's that plus great defense. The Bucks actually have the best defensive rating in the NBA. That defense -- this well-balanced team -- is why the East should be considered a toss-up between the Bucks and the Raptors (and not the Sixers and the Celtics).||1|
|Single biggest question: Can regular-season success translate to postseason success for a franchise that's had plenty of the former and not much of the latter? Any Raptors fan can recite the litany of times when this team has gotten the fan base's hopes up only to die too early in the playoffs (mostly because of LeBron James). This season, though, with two-way studs Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on board and one-dimensional DeMar DeRozan not, seems different. I can hear Raptors fans cringing at those high hopes, and the inevitable jinx that they bring.||2|
|Single biggest question: Can the NBA's second-youngest roster (only the New York Knicks are younger) deal with the sudden expectations that are on their shoulders? A year ago, the Nuggets were a fun League Pass team that barely missed the playoffs. This year they are challenging the Warriors for regular-season primacy in the West. It's been remarkable, especially considering the rash of injuries this team has sustained. But is it sustainable in the playoffs?||--|
|Single biggest question: Will Russell Westbrook start making shots? The Thunder have one of the best defenses in the NBA, and an MVP candidate in Paul George. But Westbrook is having the worst shooting season of his career; he's never had a worse true shooting percentage than his current 48.1 percent. He's shooting an awful 24.3 percent from 3, and a career-worst from the free-throw line. This can't keep up. Or will it?||5|
|Single biggest question: Will the Sixers be able to add another piece before the trade deadline or through the buyout market? As good as the top-end talent is -- there's only one other team in the NBA with three top-20 players -- the Sixers lack in depth. If they could only get a hot-shooting wing with elite defensive skills, like, say, a Robert Covington. (A capable backup big man to Joel Embiid would also do wonders.)||--|
|Single biggest question: Did their championship window close when they couldn't make a shot in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals -- or does this group still have it in them to push the Warriors to the brink? James Harden has been historically good, and has done his best work without the help of Chris Paul or Clint Capela. Paul is back now, and Capela will be soon enough. Will this midseason tear catch up to Harden's legs come playoff time? Or will the completed version of the Rockets be able to give the Warriors another run for their money? My money would be on the Rockets' championship window already having closed. But as he's proven the past month, Harden should never be doubted.||2|
|Single biggest question: Can this team, which has one of the most deep and talented rosters in the NBA, finally put all that talent together? Every time the Celtics have seemed to take two steps forward this season, they've taken one (or more) steps back. But despite all the concern about this team's underachieving, they still have the third-best net rating in the NBA. Their offense, terrible in the beginning of the season, has stabilized; it's actually a better offense (statistically) than a year ago. Every member of this team's supporting cast is important (and they have a ton of them), but their ceiling will be determined with whether Kyrie Irving can be the best player, and the most important leader, for a championship-caliber team.||--|
|Single biggest question: Can this team make one more move to improve an offense that's only 20th in the NBA (but improving -- they rank 12th in offensive rating over the past 15 games)? Otto Porter would look really good in a Jazz uniform (though his contract may not look great on their books). Ditto for Mike Conley. Add one more scoring option and the Jazz could make the Western Conference finals. That's how good this defense -- and this coaching, and Donovan Mitchell -- is.||3|
|Single biggest question: Can the Blazers break out of that good-but-not-great malaise they feel destined to stay in in this roster's current iteration? As good as Damian Lillard is, it's tough to imagine a scenario where the Blazers get out of the second round of the playoffs. Maybe this is boiling things down too much, but they just don't have enough good players, especially on the wing.||1|
|Single biggest question: How far can zigging take you when the rest of the NBA is zagging? Gregg Popovich is a genius, but the genius of his coaching job this season lies in its simplicity. The rest of the NBA is shooting more 3-pointers than ever before, but the Spurs rank last in the NBA in 3-point attempts and first in the mid-range attempts derided by the analytically-minded. Why? Because his best players are excellent mid-range shooters. Simple as that. He's maximizing this team's talent. But is the ceiling any higher than a first-round exit in the playoffs?||2|
|Single biggest question: Can this team do anything other than collapse after the season-ending injury to Victor Oladipo? I'm sick to my stomach over Oladipo's injury. One reason is because he's one of the hardest-working players in the NBA, and one of the most likable to boot. The other reason is because this Pacers team has overachieved based on any reasonable expectation coming into the season. Now they'll be without their best player. They'll make the playoffs, because the East is terrible and they have such a big head start. But do they have any hope of getting out of the first round? The Pacers are 7-5 without Oladipo this season -- but just lost to the moribund Memphis Grizzlies in their first game after his injury was announced. I hate putting the Pacers all the way down to 12th; their resume deserves much better than that. But that's what happens when you lose your best player for the season.||5|
|Single biggest question: When a team's greatest strength is elite depth, is that really all that big of a strength in the NBA? It's tough to name the go-to guy for this Clippers team. Tobias Harris just keeps getting better, Danilo Gallinari, injured now, has been having an All-Star season and the best season of his career, Montrezl Harrell is every analytics-focused basketball fan's dream and Lou Williams is Lou Williams ... but what's the ceiling for a team that doesn't really have a true superstar?||--|
|Single biggest question: How much will Spencer Dinwiddie's thumb injury impact the playoff chances for a Nets team that's already minus Caris LeVert and Allen Crabbe in the backcourt? You'd think the Nets' chance at the playoffs is relatively secure considering the weak competition after the top five teams in the East. But Dinwiddie has been an enormous part of the Nets' success this year. And only five games separate the sixth-place Nets and the ninth-place Pistons in the standings. It will be a trying month or so in Brooklyn until Dinwiddie returns.||2|
|Single biggest question: Can LeBron will this team into the playoffs upon his return from his Christmas Day groin injury? While it's not a particularly incisive piece of commentary to note that the Lakers were much better with LeBron compared to without LeBron, it's instructive to note exactly how bad this team has been since he went down. Pre-injury, the Lakers were 20-14 and in fourth place in the West, 2.5 games out of first. Post-injury, the Lakers have gone 6-10 and sunk to ninth in the West, 9.5 games out of first. It's fair to assume the Lakers will make the playoffs, presuming LeBron is healthy. He hasn't missed the playoffs since his second season. But the last thing the Lakers want is to be the eighth seed and likely face the Warriors in the first round. The goal for this team should be six seed or better, just in case the Denver Nuggets steal the top seed from the Warriors.||1|
|Single biggest question: Can De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield will the Kings into the playoffs in a stacked West for the first time since 2005-06 and end the NBA's longest postseason drought? Things are finally looking up in Sacramento for the first time in a long time (despite the Kings passing on Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft -- oops). They don't own their 2019 first-round pick, so there's absolutely no reason for the Kings to give anything less than 100 percent to make a postseason run. I'd love to see the team with the second-fastest pace in the NBA make the playoffs (even if that means a first-round slaughter at the hands of the Warriors). They're a fun watch.||1|
|Single biggest question: Can Ryan Saunders prove himself to be Glen Taylor's guy in Minneapolis and secure the head-coaching job long-term? The Wolves are 5-6 since Saunders took over. They've been missing Robert Covington that entire stretch, and point guards Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague for a chunk of that stretch. Saunders is a positive force within an organization that's handled plenty of negative vibes this season, and he has lots of personal equity with Taylor. One would think a playoff bid would secure his position for the future. Players love him.||--|
|Single biggest question: Are the Heat comfortable with mediocrity? There are two places you want to be in the NBA: At the top, or at the bottom (which gives you more chances to get to the top). The Heat are the epitome of a team that's sitting in the middle, with no clear path to go way up or way down. Is that OK for Heat fans who were spoiled during Dwyane Wade and LeBron James' reign? Or do they need more?||1|
|Single biggest question: Who is worth keeping around Luka Doncic? The fact that Rick Carlisle's apology has apparently smoothed things over between Dennis Smith Jr. and the Mavericks is nice and all, but that controversy underscores the single-biggest intrigue around this team. They now have a franchise cornerstone in Doncic. Who else on this roster will fit around him long-term? As much talent as Smith has, the only player who matters on this roster is Doncic. The Mavericks have tons of cap space moving forward.||1|
|Single biggest question: When will the Pelicans decide to cut bait with Anthony Davis? The worst-case scenario for the Pelicans isn't that they trade away a top-five player. The worst-case scenario is that they lose Davis for nothing in 2020 free agency. On Monday morning, reports surfaced that Davis officially requested a trade, saying he doesn't plan to sign an extension with the Pelicans. The race for The Brow has begun.||--|
|Single biggest question: Will the Hornets show enough to Kemba Walker that he decides that staying in Charlotte for his free agency -- where he can get the most years and the most money -- is the right call? Stars want a chance to win. The Hornets are a fine team, and Miles Bridges is a young player filled with potential, but there's nothing close to a second star after Kemba. And with some ugly salaries going forward -- assuming they pick up their player options, Nicolas Batum is owed nearly $53 million for two years after this season, and Bismack Biyombo is owed $17 million for next season -- there's not much room to improve. The Hornets have $6 million in cap space next season; 15 teams have more.||--|
|Single biggest question: Is a first-round playoff exit really an acceptable annual ceiling for a team with a couple of All-Stars? The Wizards front office seems to think so. And they're going to be stuck with John Wall's enormous contract for a long time. And trading Bradley Beal doesn't feel like a smart move. Which leaves them ... where, exactly? In the NBA's version of no-man's land. This franchise hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs since 1979. It feels like making even the second round is an unrealistic goal for the foreseeable future.||1|
|Single biggest question: How good can a team be without a point guard? Ish Smith is a fine player and all, but after that (or I guess before that, since Reggie Jackson is still the Pistons' starter), this team's point guard play is awful. Maybe a trade-deadline acquisition -- Mike Conley? Jeremy Lin? --- can bolster this team's hopes of being anything more than a certain first-round out in the playoffs (at best).||2|
|Single biggest question: Will Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba show signs of living up to their mid-lottery draft positions? Both have shown star potential on the defensive end and very little on the offensive end. I've watched Bamba hit 3-pointer after 3-pointer in practice. I've heard scouts rave about Isaac's potential. These guys are both young, but at some point, potential has to become reality.||2|
|Single biggest question: Can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol be traded for enough assets to jump-start a solid rebuild around the incredibly talented Jaren Jackson Jr.? I thought the Grizzlies should have started this rebuild a season ago, but I respect the idea of trying to win when you have players of Gasol and Conley's caliber. But this season, as the Grizzlies struggle mightily after an impressive start, it almost feels one season too late to offload those stars for commensurate talent. I don't know what sort of market there will be for Conley and Gasol. But the Grizzlies can't wait much longer.||1|
|Single biggest question: Can the Hawks flip some assets before the trade deadline to continue to bolster what feels like a promising young core? Over the past 20 games, Trae Young is shooting a perfectly acceptable 37.5 percent from 3 after an atrocious start to the season, and he's been a magician in distributing the ball. John Collins is a star in the making, or something close to that, averaging 19.4 points and 10.2 rebounds on the season. Kevin Huerter is looking like a steal with the 19th pick. Omari Spellman can play. Taurean Prince has a year left on his rookie scale contract. The Hawks have tons of incoming picks, including two likely lottery picks in 2019 (theirs and the Mavericks', acquired in the Luka Doncic trade). This is a team on the rise. Their respectable 6-9 record over the past 15 games, with an offense that ranks 18th in the NBA during that span, underscores that fact. Now, can they turn players like Kent Bazemore (who has a $19 million player option for next season), Jeremy Lin (on an expiring contract) and Dewayne Dedmon (expiring) into even more assets?||--|
|Single biggest question: Is Josh Jackson a lost cause? The Suns have two foundational pieces in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton (foundational on the offensive end, at least). Jackson is less than two years removed from being a prospect some thought was the best two-way player in the stacked 2017 draft. Is it too early to consider him a lost cause? Probably. He plays with intensity that can sometimes seem reckless; that's a positive for a Suns team that struggles on defense. He's an explosive athlete. But his shot is nearly as bad as his shot selection. He turns over the ball at an unfathomable rate (fourth in the NBA in turnover percentage). The Suns are still deep into the talent-acquisition game, a long way off from being a long way off. But at some point, Jackson needs to show progression instead of regression. This season has been a regression.||--|
|Single biggest question: Can the NBA's worst offense start making some shots? The injuries to Chandler Hutchison and Wendell Carter Jr. certainly don't help this team in the interim. Nor does having a starting point guard who is an awful shooter (Kris Dunn's 3-point percentage: 30.8 percent). We don't even know if Dunn's future will be with the Bulls, as he's been named in recent trade rumors. The best thing the Bulls can hope for for the rest of this season is continued development from Lauri Markkanen and, I don't know, land R.J. Barrett or Ja Morant from a draft that's weak on scorers (and especially at point guard, the Bulls' biggest position of need).||--|
|Single biggest question: Can the Knicks move any assets between now and the Feb. 7 trade deadline? If all of these players are still on the team on Feb. 8 -- Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke -- the Knicks will have failed at their single biggest mission: Prepare for relevance next season, when Kristaps Porzingis is back, and when the Knicks potentially can have a big free-agent signing or two. Every little asset they can add between now and then is a win.||--|
|Single biggest question: Where will the Cavaliers rank in terms of the worst NBA teams of all-time? I'm not sure, but I know this will rank as one of the worst defensive teams of all-time, if not the worst ever. The Cavs currently hold the record for the worst defensive rating -- allowing 116.9 points per 100 possessions -- in recorded NBA history, going back to 1973. Apparently LeBron James wasn't the problem with this team's defensive struggles last season.||--|