How will the Boston Celtics evolve in year two under Brad Stevens? Can the Phoenix Suns continue to grow under Jeff Hornacek? What will Stan Van Gundy do with the Detroit Pistons? These and other questions are certainly intriguing, and they’ll have their own places in shaping the 2014-2015 season. Yet, there are 10 questions which loom larger at the present moment. Here they are, submitted for your consideration:
10 – CAN THE HEAT COMPLETE THE DRIVE FOR FIVE?
The NBA championship is what the greats of the game play for, not conference championships. Yet, with that having been said, the Miami Heat will attempt to become just the second franchise in NBA history (the 1960s Boston Celtics being the only one to date) to make five straight Finals appearances. The Heat are chasing history in that regard. If they can hit that milestone and then win a third title in a subsequent year, the legacy of this franchise will grow in the estimation of historians 30, 40 and 50 years from now.
9 – WILL THE WIZARDS FIND MORE MAGIC OR GO “POOF”?
A few questions of importance in just about any endeavor wind up acquiring a teasing, tantalizing quality. A franchise in position to become a tease is the Washington Wizards, who benefited from the Chicago Bulls’ empty fuel tank to make the second round of the playoffs this past May. With the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, and Toronto Raptors all set to maintain or improve their standing in the Eastern Conference next season, it will be hard for the Wizards to hold onto the gains they made in 2014.
If the Wizards are in position to become a tease, no player on the Washington roster is more a tease than Nene Hilario, a gifted but erratic player who was (and is) good enough to undress Joakim Noah in round one of the playoffs, but not reliable enough to back up that series with another steady performance against an in-and-out Roy Hibbert in round two. Nene owned this same penchant for inconsistency as a member of the Denver Nuggets. He’s a good player on balance, but he gives just enough of a glimpse of excellence that when he regresses to the mean, the occurrence feels more like a disappointment than it perhaps should.
You can talk about the backcourt all you want, but the performance of Nene (not to mention the rest of the Washington frontcourt) is more likely to indicate how far the Wizards can travel in 2015.
8 – CAN MORE HEAD COACHES WITH NO PRIOR HEAD COACHING EXPERIENCE BECOME RESPECTED LEADERS?
Yes, Jason Kidd had coaches-on-the-floor named Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to help him along, but the point remains that Kidd — despite an utter lack of head coaching experience — exceeded expectations in year one with the Brooklyn Nets. Kidd’s positive journey after a rough initial start certainly improved the odds that other organizations would be willing to go after newbie coaches. However, did a wide swath of analysts really think that more organizations would take the plunge so soon?
The New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors wasted no time following Brooklyn’s lead by plucking brand-new coaches for the coming season. Derek Fisher made the Kidd-like transition from floor to sideline, while Steve Kerr — formerly a member of the Phoenix Suns’ front office — moved from the broadcast booth to the bench in Oakland. Will this trend continue in the future? The narratives authored on opposite coasts of the country will have a lot to say about the matter.
7 – WHERE (AND HOW) WILL DENVER AND MINNESOTA MOVE?
The Denver Nuggets were a Western Conference contender — maybe a second-level contender, but a contender nevertheless — two short seasons ago. The Minnesota Timberwolves have seen talent pass through their doors in recent seasons with absolutely nothing to show for it. Between them, these two franchises have existed in the NBA for 63 seasons without a single NBA Finals appearance. No one is expecting (or should expect) a Finals berth anytime soon, but Nuggets and Timberwolves fans certainly need to see appreciable improvement this season in order to feel good about the remainder of this decade. The Western Conference is intimidating enough at the present time; if Denver and Minnesota either stagnate or decline, it will be hard to see either franchise getting off the mat in the coming years.
6 – CAN AL HORFORD STAY HEALTHY?
The health of Al Horford obviously matters a great deal to the Hawks, but the centrality of this question with respect to the 2014-2015 is indirectly connected to the Indiana Pacers. Were the Hawks lucky to extend that series to seven without Horford, or was there method to Atlanta’s three-point-based madness — at least to the extent that Horford’s return could make the Hawks even more formidable than a lot of pundits might currently be willing to concede? The course taken by the Hawks next season will have something (not everything, but something) to say about the present and future direction of the Pacers. In other words, the near future of the Hawks franchise could have a domino effect on how we perceive other teams in the Eastern Conference. This will be something to watch with an extra measure of vigilance.
5 – WHAT’S THE SPURS’ NEXT ACT?
The San Antonio Spurs, after bagging yet another title, don’t have anything left to prove to the NBA or American sports fans. They’ve demonstrated the quality of their longevity, the fullness of their resilience, the heart of a championship team — a championship team they once again are.
All the Spurs have left to prove is entirely up to them. They don’t have a haunting memory to push them in 2014-2015. There’s no Game 6 in Miami to haunt their dreams and fill them with fury. The Spurs’ symphonic, harmonious style of play should be good enough to guide them back to the conference finals, but:
A) even if they fall short, there will be no sense of profound disappointment, unlike the past several seasons since the team’s previous title in 2007;
B) if the tank finally does run empty for what will be a 39-year-old Tim Duncan and a 37-year-old Manu Ginobili, no one in pro basketball is going to hold a failure against this decorated franchise.
How will the Spurs respond to their title? It’s rightfully one of the top 10 questions for the coming season, but after the Spurs answered their critics’ most burning queries in the spring of 2014, it won’t — and shouldn’t — rate as one of the two or three most defining questions for the next NBA sojourn.
4 – HOW WILL TOM THIBODEAU’S CAREER CHANGE (IF AT ALL)?
Tom Thibodeau is — by most accounts — one of the top four coaches in the NBA, if not one of the top two. Coaching is most centrally described and captured in a few ways, one of them being “getting the most out of your resources.” Thibodeau does this as well as anyone in the league not named Gregg Popovich. The only two (non-Pop) bench bosses who can be held in the same regard are Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle. Perhaps Erik Spoelstra could be included in the conversation as well, but a few more seasons might be needed to take a full(er) measure of his skills.
Thibodeau’s reputation is a glowing one. Naturally, he hasn’t been able to taste championship glory because his Chicago team did not have enough weapons in 2011 to cope with a younger, fresher Miami Heat side, and because Derrick Rose’s body has betrayed him (and Thibs) in subsequent seasons. Thibodeau hasn’t turned in a single season in Chicago that can be deemed unsatisfactory; he’s regularly produced high-quality work. His job performance has regularly been well above average, even though season-ending playoff outcomes have clearly left the Bulls disappointed.
No matter what the Bulls (fail to) achieve in the coming offseason, a central point of intrigue heading into 2014-2015 will be if Thibodeau can transform both the arc of his career and the fortunes of the Bulls at large. More than anything else, Thibs needs a dose of good luck, because he’s never had any during his stay in Chicago.
3 – WILL THE DALLAS MAVERICKS PICK UP WHERE THEY LEFT OFF — NAMELY, IN THE FIRST ROUND OF THE 2014 PLAYOFFS?
On the NBA TV set, roughly an hour after his San Antonio Spurs tucked away the NBA title in Game 5 of the Finals against the Miami Heat, Manu Ginobili said on Sunday night that Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle forced the Spurs to play a 1-on-1 style of game. The Spurs have readily acknowledged how well Carlisle’s schemes took them out of their comfort zone at the offensive end of the floor. The Mavericks pushed and tested the Spurs far more than Portland and Miami did. They even pushed San Antonio slightly harder than the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Carlisle’s capture of the 2011 NBA title with the Mavericks becomes a less surprising event — as opposed to a more surprising one — with the passage of time. The extent to which the Mavericks contained the Spurs through the first six games of their first-round series suggests that Dallas can become a major factor in the 2015 Western Conference. If that happens, the ultimate alignment of the West’s playoff bracket — more specifically, which side of the bracket the Mavs land in — could be the single biggest reason one team reaches the Finals and another team doesn’t.
2 – WHO’S GOING TO BUILD A BETTER BENCH?
The teams that almost won conference or league championships this past season were denied a prized piece of team hardware because their benches just didn’t measure up. From Indianapolis to Oklahoma City; from Miami to Portland; and from Los Angeles to Houston, bench play stood in the way of a championship season. The San Antonio Spurs, equipped with quality depth — enough to win Game 6 of a contentious conference finals series with Tony Parker on the pine for the whole second half — overcame all relevant obstacles en route to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. If 2014’s “almost” franchises want to overthrow the Spurs, they’ll need their benches to manage the strain of the long regular season and then become pronounced strengths in the postseason.
1 – WILL CHRIS PAUL SHED HIS PAST?
The one nicknamed “Point God” has been dogged by injuries — let’s be fair to him on that score. Yet, it’s not as though Chris Paul played for a resource-poor team this past season in Los Angeles. It’s true that the Clippers didn’t have a bench worthy of a championship team, but Paul’s gack attack late in Game 5 against Oklahoma City is what most centrally prevented him — and his team — from making a conference finals series for the first time in recorded history.
Forget winning a title or even making the NBA Finals — it’s entirely reasonable to demand that Paul remove the “conference finals” monkey from his back this season. The longer he goes without registering that one modest accomplishment, the harder it becomes to anoint him the best point guard in professional basketball. Other than Kevin Durant and perhaps Paul George, no player will be more centrally under the gun when the 2015 playoffs begin. CP3’s season will do much to define the trajectory of the 2015 season as a whole.