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NBA Training Camp Questions: Northwest Division

Nate Duncan looks at the key training camp questions for the Northwest Division.

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With training camps just around the corner, NBA teams have key questions to answer as camp gets underway that could determine much of their outcome for this season. In a continuing series, we look at the training camp questions for the Northwest Division.

Utah Jazz

How long does it take for the Jazz to pick up Quin Snyder’s system?

New coach Quin Synder was a key part of the Atlanta Hawks’ shift to a more free-flowing, ball-movement based offensive system last year. He will attempt to institute that this year with the Jazz, but these young players are not used to playing that way. The Jazz also lack the kind of ball skills and shooting at the big positions that Atlanta used so effectively a year ago with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Rudy Gobert as Utah’s first three bigs. While they may get it eventually, it is going to take time and could lead to some ugly ball early in the season.

How ready is Dante Exum?

Exum remains an excellent long-term prospect, but it is unlikely he can contribute to winning basketball right away. The Jazz have little at backup point guard behind Trey Burke, so it seems likely that Exum (who considers himself a point guard first) will get those minutes. Whether he can really break into the rotation and merit minutes alongside Burke is an open question given the deficiencies in his floor game and lack of high-level experience. While he showed some flashes, his limitations were on display in Summer League and in his stint with the Australian National Team, for which he was basically out of the rotation by the latter stages of the World Cup.

Will Alec Burks and Enes Kanter ink rookie extensions?

We will cover the topic of rookie extensions in greater depth before the season starts, but the chances of a deal getting done with either player are complicated by uncertainty of how much the cap will rise in future years, as well as league-wide trends regarding the utility of bigs who don’t protect the rim or shoot threes (Kanter) and the high value placed on quality wings (Burks).

Who is in the big rotation?

Whether Kanter is signed to an extension could affect the big rotation. If he is signed to big money, it is almost certain he will start and get the second-most minutes among the bigs, even if he starts slowly. Kanter has suffered from a knee injury through the summer that required platelet rich plasma therapy in June, and no reports indicate he has been cleared yet.  Thus, it is possible though unlikely that either Gobert or Trevor Booker could establish themselves ahead of him. Gobert is coming off fantastic summer league and national team runs in which he dominated the paint, but it is unclear whether he can start with Favors on offense due to their limited skill levels. Booker started capably as a fill-in for Washington, and even finished some games in the playoffs. However, it seems unlikely Utah would demote the long-term potential of Kanter to start a limited-upside player of Booker’s ilk.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Who starts at center?

In some ways, this is almost an existential question for Oklahoma City, an organization that is both a model and a magnet for criticism for its perceived stubbornness. The positives are obvious–this has been a top-three franchise in the NBA since 2010. But that success has shed light on a number of controversial decisions, like the refusal to go into the luxury tax, the trade of James Harden, eschewing the full mid-level exception the last three years, and of course continuing to start Kendrick Perkins.

Let’s not forget that Perkins used to be a very solid player prior to tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals. In rewatching the Celtics’ classic series against the Bulls in 2009, it was remarkable how spry he looked. But that was also five years ago.

Perkins has been under fire since at least the Spurs series in 2012. He contributes almost nothing offensively aside from setting screens, and he lacks the athleticism to really defend the pick and roll and the basket effectively either. Yet he has always retained his starting position, both for cultural reasons and due to the lack of a true center waiting in the wings. Those days are now over, as Steven Adams appears ready to assume the mantle as a superior player. Will he sufficiently outplay Perkins in camp to force Scott Brooks’ hand despite the political difficulties in playing a 20-year-old over the long-term starter and locker room leader?

Are Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones ready to contribute?

Lamb started the 2013-14 season well and was in the rotation until the arrival of Caron Butler in another veteran-favoring move. By the playoffs, Lamb barely played and was not a contributor in his few minutes during the Spurs series. But he is the only hope on the roster for a two-way wing who could allow OKC to play its terrifying small lineup with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka at the big positions and avoid giving up too much defensively. To get on the floor, he will have to greatly improve his focus defensively, as he is still quite prone to losing his man or failing to provide the appropriate help when required.

Will the offense become more complex?

Count Coach Scott Brooks’ offense as another perceived example of the Thunder’s stubbornness. Brooks has long been criticized for a lack of imagination on offense, although there is a legitimate argument that a dearth of quality decision-makers aside from Durant and Russell Westbrook makes concentrating the ball in their hands a necessity. Nonetheless, it appears that the Thunder are too easily shut down in crunch time during the playoffs. Will Brooks take steps to improve the ball movement in camp by installing more complex schemes?

Denver Nuggets

Who starts at center?

With no indications JaVale McGee will be healthy when camp opens, the battle comes down to J.J. Hickson and Timofey Mozgov. Hickson may have hurt his own chances with a five-game suspension for the start of the year, so it seems certain Mozgov will at least start the year at center. Hickson has always struggled defensively at either big position due in large part to his lack of awareness, and last year was no exception. Mozgov is the only established plus interior defender on the team, and the easiest path to improvement for Denver is boosting the league’s 21st-ranked defense a year ago.

Does Kenneth Faried sign a new deal?

We will look at his value in more depth in the weeks to come, but in short this will be a fascinating extension negotiation. Faried was prominent in trade talks a year ago and seemed like more of a backup due to his inability to space the floor, but a solid end to the season (he really improved as a postup threat) and a breakout World Cup has boosted his profile. Of particular note this summer was his defensive performance. Despite being a solid athlete at the four, Faried has never been a good defender even out on the floor, much less in the post. That changed at the World Cup, and the hope is it can carry over to the regular season.

Of course, the massive uncertainty regarding the future salary landscape also plays a role here. With new TV contracts reportedly close to agreement, perhaps teams and agents will have a better understanding of the cap going forward by the October 31 deadline for extension.

How are the injuries progressing?

Denver was riddled with injuries a season ago, with McGee, Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson the most prominent victims. McGee’s status remains unclear, while Gallinari is still recovering from ACL surgery last winter after what he believes was a botched initial procedure at Colorado’s Steadman Clinic in 2013.  Robinson hopes to be ready for training camp, which would be a swift recovery after his own January ACL surgery.

Portland Trail Blazers

Can C.J. McCollum become a rotation player?

The Blazers have few camp questions coming in since their rotation appears pretty much set. But a key this year will be the development of the second-year combo guard (and Basketball Insiders contributor) from Lehigh. After missing half the season due to a second broken foot, McCollum never really got going and was out of the rotation almost entirely by the playoffs until Mo Williams was injured. With Williams now departed to Minnesota and Steve Blake more of a caretaker type at the point, the Blazers have no established scorers off the bench. If McCollum or Will Barton cannot fill that role, the second unit could have major issues. Those would be exacerbated if the Blazers have worse health than a year ago, when their starting lineup was together for all but two games.

What is the plan to improve the defense?

The slack in Portland is clearly the defense, which struggled mightily in the playoffs against Houston and San Antonio and ranked only 16th in the league during the regular season–low for a 54-win team. Coach Terry Stotts has never really presided over a quality defensive team as a head coach.

The key for Portland will be individual improvement. Damian Lillard must improve at the point of attack getting over screens. This is a key because Robin Lopez usually hangs back in the paint due to his lack of mobility. Nicolas Batum is another player who has great physical tools defensively who has never translated them into above-average defensive play.

Minnesota Timberwolves

How does Andrew Wiggins look?

This is the paramount question for Minnesota going forward. Wiggins has great physical tools, but has exhibited a general lack of scoring feel. Flip Saunders will want to see at least occasional flashes from Wiggins of an ability to put the ball on the floor and finish strong at the basket as the first indication that he can fulfill his physical potential and become a superstar.

Can Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng play together?

With the acquisition of Thaddeus Young, these two will not start together. But they both merit large enough roles that the Wolves will at least try them as a pairing. Dieng will have to play the four on both ends to make it work, as Pekovic is completely devoid of shooting range and can’t really close out on anyone away from the basket. But Dieng himself is more of a center. The odds seem against this pairing working, especially with Ricky Rubio and likely Wiggins as relative non-shooters on the perimeter, but the two are talented enough that it is worth a try.

Will anyone remember Anthony Bennett is on this team?

The 2013 No. 1 overall pick had the most disappointing rookie season for such a draftee in recent memory. The acquisition of Young in the same trade that brought Bennett to Minnesota was not exactly a vote of confidence for the rookie, and there appears little chance for him to play his way into a role larger than fourth big man this season. But the Wolves’ previously discussed lack of shooting will provide a role for Bennett if he can make enough jumpers, something he has not come close to so far in his career.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst, salary cap expert and attorney. He has also written for Sports Illustrated & ESPN, and a host on #NBACast

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