With NBA All-Star Weekend behind us, all eyes of the hoops world now fall on the stretch run of the 2022-23 season.
All minds, meanwhile, now tussle with the big-picture questions facing every team.
What must happen for the heavyweights to feel good about their championship chances? How should the bottom-feeders bide their time before the draft lottery rewards one lucky team with Victor Wembanyama (and another with Scoot Henderson)? How can teams trapped in the middle class find their way out?
Those inquiries and many more will move to the forefront as the Association races through the remainder of this 82-game marathon.
Is the defense broken beyond repair?
The Atlanta Hawks had a number of reasons for adding Dejounte Murray last summer—upping their All-Star count, easing the shot-creation burden on Trae Young—but the biggest was bringing their defense up to championship level.
Consider that itch unscratched. Atlanta landed 26th in defensive efficiency last season and only climbed to 21st before the All-Star break.
History says teams need a top-10 defense to contend for the crown, meaning this is nowhere close to a contender as currently constructed. So, what needs to happen to make that jump?
The Hawks are trying a coaching change again—Nate McMillan was fired Tuesday, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski—but can they simply scheme and hustle their way to a more competent defense? Or is a Trae-led team destined to perennially disappoint on the defensive end?
Will Robert Williams III be there when we need him?
The full-strength Boston Celtics are the Association's best team. How can we objectively make such a subjective-sounding statement? Because Boston has rarely been full-strength this season. Its starting five from last year's NBA Finals has logged all of 29 minutes together, and the C's still have the league's best record and highest net rating.
Maybe that means the Shamrocks are deep enough to cover for an absence of one of its regulars, but their banner-raising formula almost certainly includes dynamic defender Robert Williams III creating all kinds of chaos.
Williams, who shaves a rotation-best 5.8 points per 100 possessions off Boston's defensive rating, has struggled to stay on the floor, and his health issues predate this season. This is his fifth year in the NBA, and he's yet to clear the 200-game mark for his career. If the Celtics can't rely on him when they need him most, then they'll need a better insurance plan than Mike Muscala and Luke Kornet.
Is there any hope of getting Ben Simmons going?
Just last season, the Brooklyn Nets had three cornerstone talents in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Now, with all due respect to Mikal Bridges, they have none, which boggles the mind when their roster includes a 26-year-old with three All-Star selections on his resume.
The problem is said 26-year-old is Ben Simmons, or whatever is left of him. He was a franchise floor general in the not-so-distant past, but now he's a 6'10", 240-pound enigma. Brooklyn added him at the 2022 trade deadline and still doesn't know what it has or how use him.
"Trying to figure out what lineup fits around Ben, what position fits for Ben, how we can make him look good at every opportunity," Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said, per Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post. "That's the goal and I'm still trying to figure that out."
Theoretically, this revamped Nets roster fits around Simmons. It has a bunch of long, lanky defenders who can get out in the open court and spread the floor on offense. None of that matters, though, as long as Simmons keeps playing like he's allergic to the basket and afraid of the free-throw line.