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NBA Questions & Answers: Golden Opportunities

The players and teams that have a good chance to take a step forward in the new year

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

New year, new outlook? The following seven players and teams have a clear window to change their narrative for the better.

Isaiah Thomas, Cavaliers

John Gonzalez: Drama aside, there are on-court basketball reasons why Thomas’s return earlier this week was important. Despite the Cavs being third in offensive rating and sixth in assist percentage, their point guard situation has been a mess. Derrick Rose played seven games, got hurt again, reportedly wasn’t sure if he wanted to play basketball anymore, and only recently rejoined the fold to begin rehab on his ankle. Jose Calderon, who is 36 and probably a better pig farmer than basketball player at this point, has been pressed into emergency duty and forced to play 18 minutes per game. That’s it. Those are Cleveland’s point guards. The Cavs could really use IT.

After everything that went down in Boston, Thomas is happy to be wanted. He’s mentioned as much at every turn, though he recently said he’s “good” with Danny Ainge after previously saying he might never talk to the guy again. Maybe, but that doesn’t mean Thomas can’t or won’t try to show Ainge and the Celtics what they’re missing. There might not be any room for loyalty in sports, but there’s plenty of space for revenge.

Steph Curry, Warriors

Justin Verrier: In the early days on the Warriors’ path to dominance, before Kevin Durant arrived and before Steph Curry grew out of his crew-cut phase, Steve Kerr was caught on one of those mic’d up national TV segments explaining to Curry his value to the team’s offense, even when he’s not getting the shots his prodigious game probably deserves.

“That’s your shooting totals,” Kerr said while pointing to a paper box score. “That’s your plus-minus.” Pause for dramatic effect. “All right?” Kerr continued, while giving him one of those big, boyish Kerr grins. “It’s not always tied together. You’re doing great stuff out there.”

Curry’s 2017–18 season has hammered home Kerr’s point better than even the most well-executed of pep talks. Curry hasn’t shot this “poorly” from behind the arc in … ever. The fourth-best 3-point shooter in NBA history is slumming it this season with the Ersan Ilyasovas and Austin Riverses in the mid-30s of the league’s rankings, at 40.6 percent. And yet, his overall offense is closer to his 2015–16 tour of destruction than any of the other eight in his career in most of the prominent catch-all statistics. Related: The Warriors once again have the best offense, best winning percentage, best point differential, and probably 30 other best things.

While Curry led the Warriors in scoring last season, by one-fifth of a point, Kevin Durant, the shiny new toy, predictably occupied most of the spotlight. Durant won Finals MVP and became a chic pick to win another regular-season version this season. But while KD chases accolades on defense, it feels like there’s an ongoing course-correction toward properly appreciating Curry’s offense. And while 13 games missed already limit his shot of winning a third MVP, 38 points (on 77 percent shooting), 32 points (58), and 29 points (50) in his three games since returning from injury makes a pretty convincing case to be put back on the short list moving forward.

Lou Williams, Clippers

Danny Chau: Williams is having his best season ever at the age of 31, averaging career highs in points, assists, and 3-point percentage. The Clippers are, shockingly, right on the edge of playoff contention after winning nine of their past 14 games, and Sweet Lou is averaging nearly 27 points per game over that span. Essentially All-Star numbers. His success has complicated what has been an injury-riddled farce of a season that crescendoed with Danilo Gallinari’s torn butt. On one hand, should the Clippers recover from their rash of injuries, they’d have the composition of a legitimate playoff team come April; on the other hand, only four of the Clippers’ 17 wins this season have come against teams with winning records.

Williams may be the main offensive force driving the team’s recent turn of fortune, but he will also be a free agent this summer coming off one of the biggest bargain contracts in the league. If the Clippers aren’t confident that they can retain his services (and they shouldn’t be — their roster is a house of cards), it might be worth entertaining deadline trades. For the second season in a row, Williams could be leaving L.A. in February for a playoff contender willing to take on a rental to boost their now factor. Philly and Detroit are intriguing destinations, though the most tantalizing might be San Antonio. Teams know just how deadly Williams is in the pick-and-roll, and his ability to create from every spot on the floor will be invaluable in the postseason. If he catches the right eyes, there’s a chance he won’t only be playing for a raise, but also for a potential run at his first-ever conference finals.

Markelle Fultz, Sixers

Chris Ryan: When it comes to the no. 1 draft pick, you have to read the tea leaves, because there are no X-rays. There is no comprehensible diagnosis. There is no clarity on whether he had fluid removed from his imbalanced shoulder, or cortisone injected into it. Was he responsible for reengineering his jumper? Did that have something to do with the shoulder injury that’s kept him out during his rookie year? What’s really going on here? Is he going to play this season? Is this a big deal? Should it be an even bigger one?

I don’t have the answers. But I do have the tweets. Here’s Markelle working out at the Sixers facility the other day:

You can watch the less inspiring version of this footage in Kyle Neubeck’s Philly Voice piece on Fultz’s recovery. The former video makes him look like the second coming of Brandon Roy; the latter makes him look like present-day Brandon Roy.

There is a Fultz-sized hole on the Sixers. His skill set, at least the one Philly fans were promised, is exactly what the team lacks: someone who can make his own offense off the dribble and knock down shots without the need for 13 screens (sorry, coworker).

I think he’ll come back soon. The Sixers are playing the Celtics in London on January 11. To promote the game, the NBA released this adorable video of players trying to decipher traditional English slang.

Never mind that Markelle doesn’t know what “trousers” are. I ask you this: Why would he be in the London promo if he wasn’t going to play in the London game? Bloody good question, mate.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Zach LaVine, Bulls

Jonathan Tjarks: LaVine is more than just a dunker. He made his name by winning the Dunk Contest in his first two seasons in the NBA, but he turned himself into a well-rounded scorer in Minnesota, and averaged 18.9 points a game on 45.9 percent shooting last season before tearing his ACL in February. After being traded to Chicago as part of the Jimmy Butler deal, he’s expected back at some point in mid-January. No one knows what he will look like when he returns, but if he’s even at 75 percent of his former capacity, he will still be one of the most electric athletes in the league.

He’s returning to a much different situation than anyone anticipated. The Bulls were expected to be playing for ping-pong balls all season, but they were one of the hottest teams in the NBA in December. A healthy LaVine could provide a needed scoring punch. Justin Holiday, their current starting shooting guard, is averaging 13.6 points on 38.1 percent shooting. LaVine doesn’t have much time to impress his new team: He’s up for a contract extension on his rookie deal this summer. Play well and he could become the face of a surprisingly competitive franchise.

Houston Rockets

Kevin O’Connor: Houston’s nucleus can relate. They’ve all heard groans and whimpers in the same tone of inadequacy.

James Harden is a playoff choke artist.

Chris Paul’s game doesn’t translate to playoff success.

Mike D’Antoni can’t win the big one (or beat Gregg Popovich).

Daryl Morey’s analytics won’t add up to an NBA title.

The echoes of doubt from fans and critics have resonated the past century. With one playoff failure after another — from D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Suns, to Paul’s Lob City Clippers, to Harden’s Game 6 meltdown against the Spurs — their misgivings have only been strengthened.

But the reality is that Harden is one of the league’s greats, Paul is a Hall of Famer, D’Antoni influenced the style that led to the Warriors dynasty, and Morey helped popularize the analytics movement. There’s no reason for any of them to hang their heads.

And yet, ultimately, a championship is the end goal. It’s the verification of all the work. And 2018 presents a chance for all of the Rockets’ principals to accomplish their goals together.

Jabari Parker, Bucks

Paolo Uggetti: The Bucks are teetering on the edge of contention. Positioned a cut below the top tier in the East, Milwaukee has something that teams below them don’t: a superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo. But though the pieces around him are good enough for a fourth seed, they won’t be good enough for much more than one series win. Malcolm Brogdon is still young. Khris Middleton has a ceiling. So does Eric Bledsoe. But Parker, who is set to come back soon from a knee injury that has sidelined him since last February, may not.

Parker’s potential has been hampered by injuries — he’s only played 152 games out of a possible 282 since he entered the league — but before his knee injury last season, he was averaging more than 20 points a game, a career high. There could be so much more to Parker’s game that we haven’t gotten yet to see, and more that he hasn’t had a chance to develop (i.e. a consistent 3-point shot).

Parker was just called up from the Bucks’ G League team, so his return to an NBA court should be imminent. Come playoff time, the Bucks are going to need as many offensive weapons as possible, and if the basketball gods have any kind of a soul, Parker could have a successful return and stretch run — exactly what Milwaukee needs to take it to the next level.