With the 2016-17 NBA season rapidly approaching, we’ll use our division previews to take a look at a key question, play or theme that may define a team’s success. 

Houston Rockets

- Can James Harden be an elite-level playmaker for an entire season?

When Mike D’Antoni was hired as head coach of the Rockets, a strange thought started floating around: would Harden be his new Steve Nash? During those high-flying seasons, Nash was the maestro that made D’Antoni’s offense go, posting gaudy shooting percentages and astronomical assist rates in route to two MVP awards. In Houston, there’s no doubt Harden can win a scoring title playing in an up-tempo, pick-and-roll system. The question is whether or not he can balance his game out enough for these Rockets to be greater than the sum of their parts -- the thing that truly made Nash, well, Nash.

If the preseason is any indication, Harden seems to be taking his role as the team’s chief playmaker to heart. There have been several situations so far this October where Harden has flashed a real, nuanced approach to making the game easier for his teammates. Just look the combination of pace, physicality and creativity Harden shows in getting big man Clint Capela a point blank shot at the rim out of a pick-and-roll early in a game against New Orleans:

Then here’s Harden reading the weakside of defense, recognizing a positioning mistake like an NFL quarterback and throwing a tough, cross-court pass to Ryan Anderson for an open 3:

But perhaps the most Nash-like play Harden has made so far this preseason, was far more subtle. Late in a game against New Orleans, Harden was facing a supersmall Pelicans lineup designed to swap defensive assignments on any pick-and-roll. So after having mobile big man Dante Cunnighman switch onto him at the top key, Harden begins to go into iso-mode. Last season, there’s no doubt that such a possession would have ended in a Harden foray to the rim or a contested, step-back heave. But here, even in a preseason game, Harden makes a very heady play.

Despite the tempo of the possession slowing down, allowing the defense to load up on him after the switch, Harden notices the sharp-shooting Anderson has been left more than enough space to use his hair-trigger release to get off a lightly contested 3. Anderson doesn’t look open (and he shouldn’t be), but a small mental breakdown by his help defender’s positioning gave him just a sliver of an edge -- the same ones Nash used to routinely exploit back in his heyday.

These are the types of passes that a primary ballhandler makes that that lift the entire production (and general energy) of a team. The question with Harden hasn’t ever really been if he can see and/or make these passes, it’s been his willingness to do so. And if Harden commits to being a balanced player this year in D’Antoni’s system, an MVP award may be heading his way this spring.

San Antonio Spurs

- Will the Spurs maintain their sterling offensive efficiency despite a heavy reliance on mid-range jumpers?

For about two decades, San Antonio has been running circles around the rest of the NBA. They embraced the corner 3 -- one of the most efficient shots in the game -- before the quants said it was cool. Then the Spurs ditched their Duncan-centric, 90s-style offense to embrace the Mike D’Antoni revolution and failed to miss a beat. On top of that, their management of minutes has set a trend the rest of the league has quickly followed.

Yet despite all this forward thinking and innovation, the Spurs went old-school last season in terms of their use of the mid-range. San Antonio finished fourth in offensive efficiency while attempting the fifth most mid-range shots in the league, per NBAsavant’s database. On this surface, this fails to compute (almost literally). It begs the question, has Spurs magic somehow made long 2’s efficient?

The answer is both yes and no. In basketball’s rush to universally condemn mid-range shots, we tended to treat every attempt from this maligned area as the same, unideal result for an offense. But not every mid-range jumper should be treated equally, especially when it comes to the way the Spurs get theirs. Because of their whirring, side-to-side offense and sublime ball movement, San Antonio gets the kind of long 2 any coach could live with -- a wide open one.

The Spurs led the NBA in the frequency of their 2-point attempts outside of 10 feet (holy confusing stat description, Batman) being “wide open” -- the label for defender being 6 or more feet away while the shot was attempted. San Antonio was also tied for third when it came to frequency of “open” (a defender being 4-6 feet away) 2-point shots outside of 10 feet. If that is a lot to take in, let’s simplify it: the Spurs are really good at creating mid-range shots with defenders nowhere near the players taking them. That makes a big difference when it comes to San Antonio’s ability to maintain a high level efficiency despite relying heavily on a shot that typically isn’t efficient.

And with the addition of Pau Gasol, a player who mostly occupies the same mid-range confines as last year’s big free agent addition, LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs are not going to see a dip in their number of attempts from that area of the floor. On top of that, post ups for Gasol, Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard will also make it unlikely that the team will all of a sudden break records for 3-point attempts this upcoming season. But as long as San Antonio’s ball movement keeps defenders away, the Spurs mid-range madness should continue to causes opposing defenses fits.

New Orleans Pelicans

- Can Anthony Davis become elite in an area other than finishing on the pick-and-roll?

Davis might be the league’s most interesting “superstar” caliber player. Despite all his incredible tools, the Pelicans foundational piece has been something of a one-trick pony up to this point in his career. Davis is a mobile big always near the top the league in blocked shots, but his impact on a team’s defense has negligible. Though last year was a trainwreck for the franchise, it doesn’t say much that New Orleans’ defensive rating was virtually the same whether Davis was on or off the floor (110.8 while he played, 110.7 when he sat), per 82games.com’s database.

Offensively, Davis is an incredibly rare player. As a fantastic finisher around the rim, with a nice touch, great handle and an emerging jumper, Davis is an absolute monster as the screener in pick-and-rolls. He can catch early on the roll, put it on the floor and or pass out to a shooter. He can obviously do damage if allowed to catch lobs late. If his 3-point shot comes around, Davis will be the premier pick-and-roll partner in the NBA because he’ll literally have no weaknesses in that action.

The problem for both him and the Pelicans, however, is that is basically the only action where Davis is a genuine threat to a defense. The two other areas a big can impact the game on offense -- post ups and iso’s -- are terribly inefficient plays for Davis. Per Synergy data, Davis finished last year in the league’s bottom third with a paltry .782 points per possession (PPP) on post ups. His iso’s were even worse: 26th percentile in the league with a PPP of .677 on a 124 charted possessions that ended with a shot, foul or turnover. While those Synergy numbers, like most stats, have some noise to them, it’s still pretty damning.

Where this becomes problematic for the Pelicans, is that if Davis fails to improve those numbers this season, it puts the team in a dicey spot when it comes to handling their best player. They can continue to feed him the ball in those situations, hoping his production improves and Davis rounds out his game, elevating the level of the entire offense. That’s the best case scenario.

The worst case is that Davis continues to be force fed the ball in those actions and continues to produce middling results. Essentially wasting possessions that would be best served simply putting him in pick-and-roll with virtually any ballhandler on their roster. Because make no mistake, teams that aren’t overly switch-happy will be ripped apart when Pelicans go small with Davis at the 5 and run spread pick-and-rolls to death.

But like Dwight Howard, Davis’ label as a superstar may back the notion that he needs to do more than that to help his team win. And the team, not wanting to upset their franchise player, will tailor their offense to rounding out Davis’ game by calling for a steady diet of post ups and isolations. Pelicans’ fans can only hope that Davis is much improved in those areas this season.

Memphis Grizzlies

- The annual question: Do the Grizzlies have enough shooting to challenge the top teams in the West?

For what seems like their entire existence as a franchise, the Grizzlies have entered each season with their inability to spread the floor around Mike Conley and their formidable frontcourt as a major question mark. Last season, they ranked 29th in 3-point percentage. Two years ago, they landed at 22nd. During the 13-14 season, the team hit their high-water mark of 19th then promptly failed to finish no higher than 24th during the previous three seasons.

Yet somehow in an era where attempts behind the 3-point line have exploded, Memphis still had considerable success, mostly due to their defense, led by Tony Allen and their wrecking ball frontcourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. But those times are long behind them. Randolph is 35 and currently being phased into a bench role. Allen turns 35 in January. Gasol is a question mark after missing a huge chunk of last season with a broken foot.

Despite this transition to a new era with a new coach, David Fizdale, Memphis still seems to be lagging behind in the 3-point department. Aside from their key free agent pickup Chandler Parsons, a career 38.0 percent 3-point shooter, there aren’t many true floor spacers on this Memphis roster. Troy Daniels is a deadeye from behind arc, but limitations in other areas of his game have kept from a steady role. And this preseason, Fizdale has played him just 25 minutes in their first three games.

James Ennis has a career mark of 37.3 percent, but has only attempted 153 NBA 3’s during his brief stints in New Orleans and Miami. Rookie first round pick Wade Baldwin should give Grizzlies fans some hope given his career mark of 42.2 percent from behind the arc during his two seasons at Vanderbilt, but young players rarely prove reliable from deep as they adjust to the longer NBA 3-point line. On the other end of the spectrum, 39-year-old Vince Carter is back for another season, but the sage vet struggled badly from the field last year (38.8 and 34.3 percent from the field and 3-point territory) and it’s unlikely given the number of NBA miles on his legs that Carter is going to have a significant uptick in his production.

Given that rosy review of the Memphis roster, it’s probably not a shock to find out that the team is shooting a woeful 28.6 percent from behind the arc. What’s interesting to note, however, is that the Grizzlies have attempted 77 through those three games, an average of 25.6 per game. That number would blow past last year’s mark of 18.5 3-point attempts and jump Memphis into the top half of the league in terms of attempts.

It certainly seems like Fizdale doesn’t seem bashful about letting his new charges in Memphis let loose from deep. But whether this current roster can reverse a long, disappointing trend of misfiring beyond the arc is a different story.

Dallas Mavericks

- Who will be prioritized more: Harrison Barnes or the eclectic (and underrated?) Mavericks backcourt?

In news to no one, the preseason has started and Dallas has shown us they are looking to expand the game of prized free agent signing Harrison Barnes. Though Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t touched the floor yet and Rick Carlisle has juggled around his lineups quite a bit, in the times Barnes has been on the floor there is a noticeable shift of the offense in his direction. It’s not seismic, but there’s definitely going to be an attempt to put Barnes in a Chandler Parsons-esque role and see what he can do.

Yet the results of this preseason so far have been miserable for Barnes (granted, it’s the preseason). He’s failed to shoot over 40 percent from the field in a single game, even notching a couple sub 25 percent performances on 23 combined shots in games against the Bucks and Hornets. Again, it’s early. Bad preseason numbers typically mean nothing but it’s certainly not a positive sign.

What’s interesting though is the struggles for Barnes have been juxtaposed with a lights out preseason for another, far less heralded free agent addition, Seth Curry. Curry has been a force in the three games he’s played, shooting a shade below 50 percent from the field (17-of-35) and 61 percent from 3 on 13 attempts. While it’s important to point out, again, that it’s just three preseason games, Curry’s performance mirrors that of the killer two months he had to close the regular season.

And it’s not just that Curry may steal Barnes’ thunder either. JJ Barea almost single-handedly carried the team into the playoffs last spring. Deron Williams, while obviously not the same player, is still an effective NBA rotation player in a reduced role. It’s also not exactly a stretch to think Wes Matthews can show a slight uptick in his production in his second season coming off a major injury.

That backcourt quartet, though not exactly a GM’s dream, might secretly have enough juice (along with the Dirk effect) to power the team’s offense -- something that would come into a conflict with an effort to empower Barnes. It’s development I touched on this summer when reviewing the Mavs offseason. With little margin for error out West, it will be interesting to see how this tug-of-war for touches plays out. The team’s playoff fate may just depend on it.

More Division Previews: Atlantic DivisionCentral Division, Northwest DivisionPacific DivisionSoutheast Division