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One Pressing Question | NBA Eastern Conference edition

Nekias Duncan



NBA East
USA Today Sports photos

The trade deadline has passed and NBA All-Star Weekend is over. That means two things:

  1. We can forget Fergie exists. After her National Lampoon Anthem rendition, I think that’s best for all of us.
  2. We’ve reached the home stretch of the NBA season.

With 25-30 games left, teams will either be jockeying for playoff seeding, a playoff spot, or better positioning in the NBA Draft lottery. Let’s take a look at one key question surrounding each team in the Eastern Conference as we hit the home stretch.

ATLANTA HAWKS: Who will the Hawks pair with John Collins?

Atlanta’s most prized prospect is John Collins, a human pogo stick with a nose for the ball and an insatiable thirst for dunking. Collins was one of the most productive players in college basketball last year, but he slipped outside of the lottery because of his archetype. Though his athleticism is off the charts, he doesn’t have the length to serve as a rim-protecting five, nor does he shoot well enough to operate as a four next to a more traditional big.

Because of this, the Hawks have been experimenting with big-man pairings all season. Collins’ best partner so far has been Mike Muscala. The two have a plus-1.0 net rating in 215 minutes together. Collins’ ability as a rim-runner vibes nicely with Muscala’s perimeter-oriented game (42.6 percent from 3). The Collins-Dewayne Dedmon pairing seems like the more natural fit; Dedmon has expanded his range (38.5 percent from deep) and is easily the best defensive big man on the roster, but the two have a minus-2.9 net rating together.

Expect to see more of those two pairings, as well as some minutes with stretch-ish big man Tyler Cavanaugh (I promise he’s a real person).

BOSTON CELTICS: How will Boston get the offense on track?

The Celtics have overachieved this season. They’ve shaken off the early loss of Gordon Hayward and currently sit second in the Eastern Conference with a 40-19 record. They’ve accomplished this behind an elite defense; their 100.9 defensive rating is the lowest mark in the NBA.

In a vacuum, every team wants to defend that well. Boston has needed to because it hasn’t been able to score consistently. The 104.4 offensive rating ranks 21st in the league. Beyond Kyrie Irving, there hasn’t been a reliable source of buckets. Al Horford is more facilitator than scorer; Jaylen Brown has taken a leap, but he’s still inconsistent. Jayson Tatum’s shooting has regressed, and relying on him as a second option this early is a tall order.

Brad Stevens has been swapping lineup combinations for some extra juice. That’ll probably continue after the break. Will he reinsert Marcus Smart into the starting lineup to get an extra ballhandler on the floor? Will the Horford-Greg Monroe pairing get some burn? Maybe the aggressive mid-post game of Marcus Morris could add some flavor. Boston needs to find an answer, because the offense could be stifled in a series against a good defense.

BROOKLYN NETS: Will Brooklyn get anything from its 2015 projects?

The Nets tried to add to their barren asset bank by buying (moderately) low on a pair of 2015 lottery picks. They traded Seth Rogen Brook Lopez in a deal for then-controversial guard D’Angelo Russell last summer. Earlier this season, they acquired Jahlil Okafor (and Nik Stauskas) while only having to give up Trevor Booker. For a team in Brooklyn’s position, being able to acquire young guys with intrigue for players that aren’t in the long-term plan is a win.

Unfortunately, neither player has provided Brooklyn much value.

Okafor remains a dinosaur — a thinner dinosaur, but a dinosaur no less — in today’s NBA. He shot well from the field, has made nice moves out of the block, but makes Brooklyn worse overall. The offense grinds to a halt when he’s out there, and he offers next to no rim protection on the other end.

Russell looked solid to start the year before suffering a knee injury. Since returning in mid-January, he has struggled in virtually every aspect of the game. His shooting splits (37/25/85) are poor, his assist-turnover ratio is subpar, he doesn’t get to the line much, and he remains lost on the defensive end.

Some of that can be excused because he needs time to get back into the groove. However, the primary criticisms of his game still ring true. He’s more of a playmaking two than a point guard, he shies away from contact and struggles to finish, and he’s a poor defender. Outside of his pull-up shooting (which is down this year), what does he do? It’s obviously too early for Brooklyn to give up on Russell, but he’ll need to check some boxes after the break.

CHARLOTTE HORNETS: Will Kemba Walker get some help?

Somehow, the Hornets are only 5.5 games out of the eight seed. That’s a deficit, but nothing impossible to overcome with 25 games left.

You can be assured that Kemba Walker will do everything in his power to make a last ditch effort, but what kind of support will he get? Specifically, can Charlotte not be a flaming pile of garbage when Walker is off the floor?

With Walker on the court, the Hornets outscore opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. When Walker heads to the bench, the Hornets are outscored by 12.3 points per 100 possessions. A differential of 16.2 points is absurd; frankly, it’s unfair that Walker has to carry that sort of load. Luckily, Nicolas Batum has trended upward of late, but the Hornets will need more support from everyone if they hope to sneak into the postseason.

CHICAGO BULLS: Will Chicago’s young core start defending?

Chicago’s three most promising players are sweet-shooting big man Lauri Markkanen, high-flying, bucket-getting Zach LaVine, and human bulldog Kris Dunn. It’s easy to get excited about Dunn bullying his way to the rim, LaVine dunking on fools and making H.O.R.S.E shots, and Markkanen splashing home triples for years to come.

Their play on the other end of the court probably makes head coach Fred Hoiberg #SeeRed. The trio has played only 50 minutes together, but its 125.4 defensive rating is… not ideal. Dunn has elite defensive potential, and Markkanen should at least be passable positionally. LaVine is a real piece of work. He’s just not instinctive, falls asleep off-ball, and dies on screens.

Chicago losing games isn’t a bad thing at this point, but it at least needs to start building good habits defensively.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: How much better will they be?

The early returns of Cleveland’s deadline moves have been overwhelmingly positive. Rodney Hood has lit it up from 3. George Hill has defended well and knocked down shots. Jordan Clarkson has been on fire, while Larry Nance Jr. has looked good as a small-ball five.

Of course, it’s been only two games. Cleveland won’t score at a 1.24 points-per-possession clip for the rest of the season. Clarkson won’t shoot near 62 percent from the field. Regression in terms of shooting will hit, and we’ll see just how much the Cavs have improved. There are still plenty of questions concerning the defense that need to be answered; two games don’t prove enough.

DETROIT PISTONS: Will the point guards play well enough to make the postseason?

Detroit went 19-14 in the games Reggie Jackson appeared in before being sidelined with an injury. The moment Jackson went down, the losses started piling up for Detroit. It was clear that dribble-handoffs with Andre Drummond and Ish Smith didn’t bend defenses the way the Drummond-Jackson hookup did.

Detroit has attempted to address its playmaking limitations by adding Jameer Nelson and dusting off Langston Galloway, though neither have truly moved the needle. Jackson should return soon, but there’s no telling how long it’ll take for him to establish a personal rhythm, much less get acclimated to Blake Griffin with even less spacing.

INDIANA PACERS: Will Myles Turner get rolling?

After a strong sophomore campaign, Myles Turner was expected to take The Leap and finally put his name in the conversation with the other unicorns in the league.

(To be fair, Turner already should’ve at least been part of the conversation. He isn’t KAT, but his ability to shoot and swat shots shouldn’t have been slept on like this.)

Instead, a concussion derailed Turner earlier in the year, and it feels like he’s been playing catch-up ever since. A cursory glance at his per-100 possession numbers shows modest improvement:

  • 2016-17: 23.1 points (51/35/81), 11.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 3.4 blocks
  • 2017-18: 23.8 points (49/36/76), 11.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 3.6 blocks

He has tried to expand his range this year. Part of that is due to playing alongside Domantas Sabonis, but he also made a conscious effort to swap out some of his mid-range jumpers for 3s. Indiana has already struck gold with Victor Oladipo. If Turner rounds into form as a second option, the Pacers could be a scary team to face in round one.

MIAMI HEAT: How will Erik Spoelstra handle the rotation?

Depth is simultaneously the most overrated and underrated aspect of team-building. Having a poor bench can tank your ceiling; just ask the Washington Wizards. But having a serviceable 12th man just doesn’t matter unless you’re hit with the bubonic plague.

Miami can go at least nine-deep right now, and that’s excluding the currently-injured Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters, and Rodney McGruder, who was slotted to start ahead of Josh Richardson had he not gotten hurt during the preseason.

The issue: Miami has a ton of serviceable-but-flawed players that solve one problem while creating another. Spoelstra is going to have his hands full trying to figure out what his rotations and lineups will be to close the year. His “ride with the hot hand” philosophy has been necessary due to the injuries, but Miami has to build some semblance of continuity so it can finish the year strong.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS: When will Milwaukee close games with its Core Four?

Milwaukee’s four most important players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Jabari Parker — have played six minutes together. Parker is still on a minutes restriction, but at some point, Milwaukee will need to give those guys some run.

There’s plenty of shot-creation and athleticism in that quartet; it just makes sense to let those guys get acclimated with one another before the postseason. On a longer-term view, Milwaukee needs to see where Parker fits into the equation. His free agency will be one of the most-followed developments of the summer.

NEW YORK KNICKS: Will the Emmanuel Mudiay-Frank Ntilikina pairing work?

Many (read: I) scratched their heads in confusion when word got out about the Knicks acquiring Emmanuel Mudiay on Deadline Day. On one hand, it was a low-cost move to take a flier on a talented-but-flawed point guard. On the other hand, the optics of trading for a bad point guard on his rookie deal while fans have already been complaining about Jarrett Jack, another bad point guard, playing over their rookie point guard are… well, not great.

In theory, Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina could work together. They have the length and athleticism to defend 1-3. Ntilikina has already looked like a plus defender, while Mudiay is more active than good on that end. Where Ntilikina struggles to puncture defenses, Mudiay is able to get into the lane at will. That should take pressure off the rook.

But, man, the shooting is so problematic. With Kristaps Porzingis out for the year, New York’s playoff aspirations are done. There’s no pressure to win this year. Why not see what you have in this dual-PG look?

ORLANDO MAGIC: Will Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja boost their stock?

After looking like a lost cause in his first two seasons, Hezonja has finally started to find his stride. He’s averaging career-highs in points (8.8) and rebounds (3.5) while boasting a solid shooting split (47/35/80). Since December 9 (30 games, 16 starts), Hezonja is averaging nearly 13 points and five rebounds with a 48/36/81 shooting split. His ability to shoot from anywhere or get to the rim should intrigue a lot of teams this summer. That’s bad news for Orlando, which wouldn’t be in a position to lose him had it not declined his option over the summer.

Gordon is also due for a big payday as he hits the restricted free-agent market. Injuries have derailed what was looking like a borderline All-Star campaign. Gordon had always shown flashes of being a two-way force, dunking on fools and swatting shots on the other end. This season, he looked like a real threat from deep, shooting 43.8 percent from 3 on 5.3 attempts over the first two months of the season. He has tapered off quite a bit; he is knocking down only 26.8 percent of his triples since December 1.

Gordon may not get a max this summer, just by virtue of cap space being so tight. If he can get healthy and regain at least some of his stroke from deep, he’l likely earn a few more millions.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Can Ben Simmons thrive without Joel Embiid?

Ben Simmons is in the midst of a historic rookie campaign. Only four players have averaged 16-6-6 as a rookie: Simmons, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson… and Michael Carter-Williams. He’s been, at worst, the third-best player on a playoff team, a rare feat for a rookie.

His Rookie of the Year case is strong — he’s probably still the front-runner — but it is not locked up. One glaring blemish in his case is how bad Philly performs when he’s on the floor without Joel Embiid. When Simmons and Embiid are on the floor together, the Sixers have a plus-14.0 net rating. When Simmons goes solo, Philly’s net rating drops to minus-4.1.

Simmons’ inability to shoot and his occasional blip of tentativeness hurt Philly. Of course, Markelle Fultz was supposed to be the other creator to take pressure off, but he is somewhere in purgatory.

Philly struggling without Embiid might not be a huge problem in the regular season, but you’d like to see that get sorted out before the playoffs begin. Those three-minute, two-point stretches can kill you in a playoff game.

TORONTO RAPTORS: Will the Raptors hang onto the top seed?

Cleveland’s turmoil and redemption have been covered extensively. Boston’s success without Hayward and the overall wizardry of Brad Stevens have been covered extensively. Somehow, Toronto still hasn’t gotten enough love for the offensive transformation it made while maintaining an elite defense.

Dwane Casey probably won’t win Coach of the Year (y’know, Stevens), but he’s done a fantastic job with this group. The starters are humming; the bench unit has been fantastic. If Toronto stays healthy, there’s no reason it can’t hold on to the top spot in the East.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS: How will John Wall be received when he returns?

Two things seem to be true about John Wall and the Wizards.

  1. Wall is, at worst, a top-20 player in the league, and the Wizards are a more dangerous team when he’s available.
  2. The Wizards may not be better without Wall, but they seem to have more fun without him.

There have been juuust enough whispers surrounding Washington’s locker room the last three years to believe there’s at least something there. Wall and Beal famously haven’t been the best of friends, though their relationship seems better now. The low-key subtweet from Marcin Gortat not too long ago certainly raised eyebrows.

Maybe everything is squashed — Wall will return and the Wizards will go on a post-break run. Either way, the chemistry of this team will be something to watch.

Nekias Duncan is an avid pun enthusiast that dabbles in NBA writing. He's the youngest Elgin Baylor fan you know. When he isn't writing about basketball here, he's likely playing crazy chords on his keyboard at church. You can follow him on Twitter (@NekiasNBA).