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Burning questions for the NBA's top contenders

Profile Picture: Rory Breasail

Rory Breasail

February 23rd, 2022

The 2022 NBA Playoffs are just seven short weeks away. That’s exciting because there’s more parity this season than in any in recent memory, with several teams worthy of legitimate contender status. In order to win it all each of these teams will have to answer a question core to their very identity.

NBA Championship 2021/2022

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Golden State Warriors

+400

Phoenix Suns

+400

Brooklyn Nets

+650

Milwaukee Bucks

+650

Philadelphia 76ers

+700

Miami Heat

+1000

Utah Jazz

+1800

Chicago Bulls

+2500

Memphis Grizzlies

+2500

Boston Celtics

+3000

Today we’re taking you through the burning questions for the NBA’s top eight contenders.

WARRIORS: CAN THEY SURVIVE THE NON-STEPH MINUTES?

The Golden State Warriors didn’t enter the season as contenders in most people's eyes, but they’ve quickly become one of the favorites because of a sterling defense and MVP caliber play by Steph Curry.

However, the Warriors' offense has been inconsistent this season, largely because Curry has been so up and down. It goes without saying that for the Warriors to win it all, Curry must recapture his early year form (a 50-point All-Star game performance is a nice start), but even more important is what happens when Steph is out of the game.

The Warriors have a 114 offensive rating with Steph in the game, which plummets to disastrous 101.8 whenever he sits. The Warriors need to find a way to both bring Klay Thompson back into the fold, as well as have Jordan Poole rediscover his production now that he’s back to playing a bench role.

NETS: WHAT IS THEIR IDENTITY?

The Brooklyn Nets are essentially a brand new team, and as such face more burning questions than any other contender. Will Kevin Durant be healthy in the playoffs? Will Kyrie Irving be allowed to play in home games? What version of Ben Simmons are they going to get? Will Joe Harris play again this season?

Ultimately, it’s going to be about finding an identity. Once the team is whole (or as whole as it's going to be), Steve Nash has to figure out what kind of team the Nets are, and how to quickly try to become the best version of that team. Who that will be and how will they play? For now, that’s anyone's guess.

SUNS: CAN THEY WIN A FIRST ROUND SERIES WITHOUT CHRIS PAUL?

The news that Chris Paul will be reevaluated in 6-8 weeks after suffering a broken thumb has created another level of intrigue at the top of the conference. While it’s more likely than not the Suns are still safe as the top seed, it does mean it’s possible they’ll face one of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, or the Minnesota Timberwolves in a 1-8 matchup without Chris Paul.

That might not sound daunting, but there’s always the chance LeBron and the Lakers turn things up for a series and pose a serious threat. Even more dangerous are the Clippers, who will likely have Paul George, and who *might* even have Kawhi Leonard. That latter possibility is the nightmare scenario for the Suns, who will have to prove that they're capable of winning at the highest level without the "Point God."

BUCKS: WILL BROOK LOPEZ COME BACK?

The defending champs have been many people's default favorites in the East, but they have looked less than impressive lately. The Bucks hang their hats on defense, but have slipped all the way to 11th in the league in that category.

Giannis is a monster defensively, but having Brook Lopez in the middle takes them to another level. If they want to remain favorites, they need him back for the playoffs.

GRIZZLIES: CAN THEY SUSTAIN THEIR OFFENSE IN THE PLAYOFFS?

It is a testament to the young Memphis Grizzlies that we must consider them legitimate contenders to win the title this year when many thought they were a Play-In team to start the season.

But the Grizzlies' youth and inexperience is not the primary question they have to answer, it’s whether their offense is built for the playoffs. Memphis has the best transition offense in the NBA and generates 19% of all its looks by getting out on the run. But transition offenses typically struggle in the playoffs, with sharp drop-offs across the board for most teams.

If their transition declines, then players like Jaren Jackson Jr. (who has had an excellent defensive season) will be under more pressure to produce offense - his 31.8% mark from 3 just won’t cut it.

HEAT: CAN THEY SCORE ENOUGH?

On his show this week ESPN columnist Zach Lowe wondered if the Miami Heat shouldn’t be considered the actual favorites to win the title. While I wouldn’t go that far, it’s true that their chances are being underrated.

Their group is just so nasty defensively. They have numerous brilliant basketball minds from the players to the coaching staff and Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and PJ Tucker will try to outcompete you every game.

The Heat are going to win games on defense, that’s not at issue. The question is if when teams force Bam Adebayo, PJ Tucker, or Jimmy Butler to hit outside shots can they hit enough to keep their half-court offense afloat?

SIXERS: HOW DO HARDEN AND EMBIID COEXIST?

The Philadelphia 76ers are now the most compelling team in the NBA. The question everyone is asking is how will Joel Embiid and James Harden fit together? Some have suggested that the fit between the two is awkward on offense, but that’s overblown. Their sheer level of talent, complementary playmaking, and shooting should make them deadly on that end right from the jump.

But how they will defend is a legitimate concern. Harden’s inability (or unwillingness) to get over ball screens has necessitated that his teams switch on the defensive end his entire career, and it seems unlikely that at 32 that’s going to change. But switching 1-5 nullifies Embiid's greatest strength by allowing teams to pull him away from the basket. Whether Doc Rivers can find an answer to that conflict may determine whether the Sixers win a championship.

JAZZ: CAN THEY UP THEIR DEFENSE IN THE PLAYOFFS?

The Utah Jazz feel like a known quantity compared to a lot of the other contenders, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rudy Gobert is a defensive monster, Donovan Mitchell is a legit on-ball scoring star, and Quin Snyder is one of the better strategic minds in the NBA. 

But the Jazz have flamed out in a few playoffs now, and the clock is ticking on this group if it happens again. For all the consternation about Utah’s inability to score against switching defenses, an even bigger issue is their fall-off defensively in the postseason. Utah was the league's best defense last year in the regular season and plummeted to 16th in the playoffs.

Gobert gets a lot of criticism for being unable to translate his game to the postseason, but in truth, it’s Mitchell and Utah’s other perimeter players that need to step up their games. Until they do, it won’t matter that they have one of the best rim protectors in the NBA.

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