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May 26, 2024

One question for every NBA team: Eastern Conference

By FREDDY BRANSON | November 16, 2023

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ERIK DROST / CC BY 2.0

Freddy Branson asks the biggest question every Eastern Conference team will have to answer this season.

After a long and eventful off-season, the NBA season is finally back upon us! All 30 teams are starting with a blank record and we, as fans, have (mostly) grand delusions that “this will finally be our year!” That being said, I wanted to delve into one key question that every team will have to answer for them to reach the promised land. Two week ago, I wrote this article for the Western Conference. This time, we’re looking at the Eastern Conference. 

Atlanta Hawks: Is it possible for the defense to be league-average with Trae Young?

In every season since 2020, the Hawks have had a top-eight offense in the entire league. You would think that the Hawks would have some sustained success given the offensive arms race that has taken place within the landscape of the NBA. However, this is not be the case, as the Hawks have battled mediocrity during this entire stretch. The problem? Their abysmal defense. 

Last season they finished 23rd in opponent points per game (PPG), highlighting the underlying issue with this roster. They should have the requisite personnel to be at least an average defense with players like Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu and De’Andre Hunter. However, there remains a figurative black hole on defense: Young, who despite his offensive mastery, will likely limit the team's ultimate potential if he can not rectify his shortcomings. 

Boston Celtics: Will the offseason moves be enough to cure their postseason woes?

Despite stellar regular season outputs for what seems like the last decade, the Celtics have not been able to reach the heights of a championship since the original Big Three of 2008. The most obvious concern with their postseason performances has been the offensive outputs of their two young stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. At the end of the day, when the two players you’ve signed to more than $500 million combined are being outperformed by Gabe Vincent in playoff games, it is not a recipe for success. 

The Celtics' solution this offseason was to trade for Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, creating an incredibly talented roster that should amount to another incredible regular season. However, we will have to wait until the offseason to accurately gauge the success of these moves, and another year without a championship will simply have to be chalked up to a failure of a season.

Brooklyn Nets: Can Ben Simmons still play basketball?

After accepting the failure of the Big Three experiment of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, the Nets elected to blow it up and effectively commit to a rebuild. In the aftermath of it all, they ended up with Ben Simmons and Mikal Bridges. Bridges has proved to be an incredible player for them, averaging 26 points per game. However, Simmons has left a lot to be desired. 

Since being traded to the Nets, Simmons has played only 48 games, averaging totals of 7 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists per game. This is a far cry from his former All-NBA self and will leave the Nets questioning whether there is any point in trying to rekindle his former status. This is likely Simmons’ last chance with the Nets, perhaps even in the NBA, and he will have to prove that he is still able to play the game of basketball at the NBA level.

Charlotte Hornets: What is the identity of the team?

The Hornets are one of the youngest teams in the entire NBA with eight players on their roster at or below the age of 22. Given this, they are a team lacking any kind of real identity or direction. The Hornets will not be deluded by any kind of dreams of contending this season. However, it could prove a vital year in establishing a culture centered around winning and structure — hopefully led by LaMelo Ball. 

Chicago Bulls: How can they fix the offense?

The Bulls are a bit of an anomaly of a team. There is an undeniable amount of talent on the roster. However, by virtue of both injuries and poor play, they just have never seemed to be able to fully click together. Last season, the Bulls were able to have the fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA. However, it was their offense that cost them, ranking 24th overall. 

Despite having a number of gifted offensive players like Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls simply do not have the requisite depth of offensive talent to compete at an elite level in the NBA. Unless this is a breakout year from Patrick Williams or Coby White, it is unlikely that they will be able to fix their issues, and will probably finish towards the bottom of the league once again.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Will a lack of frontcourt shooting impede them?

After trading for Donovan Mitchell last year, the Cavaliers put together an impressive year that saw them rank as the best defense and ninth-best offense out of the entire NBA. However, this level of success did not translate to the playoffs as they lost in five games to the New York Knicks in the first round. When looking at the construction of the roster, the clear point of concern lies in the frontcourt. 

While the pairing of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen together creates a scary combination of rim-protectors, it leaves a lot to be desired, both when it comes to leaving a drop-coverage defense as well as creating a versatile and spaced-out offense: two things vital in a playoff series. If they can find a solution to these issues, they will prove a formidable force in the postseason. However, it would seem unlikely that they will find this answer.

Detroit Pistons: Ausar Thompson or Jaden Ivey for the future?

Over the last few years, the Pistons have accumulated a treasure trove of young assets, headlined by the likes of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren, Jaden Ivey and Ausar Thompson. They seem to be well on their way to contending for the playoffs again. However, a difficult decision may loom sometime in the near future. With the pairing of Ivey and Thompson, there is a level of shooting desired that neither of them seem to have the abilities to fulfill at this point in time. 

Given the repositioning of the league over the last ten years to focus on the three-point shot, if neither are able to develop a reliable jump-shot, it may lead to a quicker demise than Pistons fans are hoping for. 

Indiana Pacers: Would it be beneficial to sacrifice depth to consolidate their talent?

The Pacers have come into this year with one of the deepest rosters in the entire league. There is a legitimate argument that they can go 13 men deep with the amount of talent on their roster, and while this is a positive, it is also something that could be used to vastly improve their roster further. 

While it is not necessarily a likely outcome, the Pacers could look to package some of their role players that are unlikely to see much time on the court — like Daniel Theis, T.J. McConnell or Isaiah Jackson — for a more established power forward. Perhaps even a Pascal Siakam trade could be possible? This would obviously accelerate their timeline of contention, and shouldn’t affect their depth all that much.

Miami Heat: Can the offense improve?

While the Heat had a very successful playoff run last year that saw them upset the number one seeded Bucks and make it all the way to the NBA Finals, there are a number of questions that surround them for this year. The most pressing of the bunch is whether the offense that finished 30th in PPG last year will take any steps of improvement. 

It is undeniable that the Heat have an incredible defense, however it is unsustainable to rely on flashes of gold in the pan from players like Caleb Martin to carry them again, especially after Gabe Vincent left them in free agency this year. It is expected at this point for the Heat to find another undrafted diamond in the rough that will contribute to their playoff run, but will it be enough for them to get back to the NBA Finals? That is a much more unlikely scenario.

Milwaukee Bucks: Will the defense be the same without Jrue Holiday?

In the biggest blockbuster move of the offseason, the Bucks made a trade for Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard, in the process trading away a key piece of their championship run with Jrue Holiday. While this move should only be a net positive for the Bucks, they have started off the season rather shakily, and a lot of this can be attributed to a fall-off on the defensive side of the ball. Holiday holds the staple as one of, if not the best, perimeter defenders in the entire league, a skillset that Lillard does not possess. 

While the offensive side of the ball should take a step-up, it will be a struggle for the Bucks to retain the same level of defense that anchored them during their championship run, and thus might hinder their chances at a championship this season.

New York Knicks: Do they commit to the full rebuild?

While the Knicks have made the playoffs two out of the past three seasons, they have hovered around a level of mediocrity that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. While the signing of Jalen Brunson last offseason turned out to be a major success after much ridicule, the Knicks still don’t present as serious contenders for the championship that New York so desperately desires. They will likely choose to continue to try and contend with this team, led by Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle. However, it does leave one to question whether they would be better off committing to a full reset and rebuild in the interest of not remaining in a state of mediocrity. 

Orlando Magic: What do they do with the surplus of guards?

Over the last few years, the Magic have been accumulating an enormous amount of guard talent through both the draft and via trade, headlined by Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs and Jett Howard

While it is beneficial to have so much depth, it may be better put to use to trade for other, more established players to help build around young stars Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. If they do elect to take this route, there will be a number of questions that they will face in terms of who they choose to keep and who they choose to trade off.

Philadelphia 76ers: Can Joel Embiid win in the playoffs?

In what has become almost a running joke in NBA circles, the 76ers bowed out of the playoffs before the Eastern Conference Finals again. Despite their superstar, Embiid, winning his first MVP last year, posting averages of 33 points and 10 rebounds per game, they were unable to overcome the Celtics for the third time in six seasons. 

After trading away James Harden and accumulating even more bench depth, another disappointing exit in the postseason would only add to the mounting pressure on Embiid to beat the narratives of his postseason woes and, perhaps, push the 76ers to move in a different direction in the offseason.

Toronto Raptors: Is it worth keeping Pascal Siakam?

If there is one archetype of player that Team President Masai Ujiri loves, it is big, athletic wings — an asset that the Toronto Raptors are certainly in no shortage of. With Former Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes seeming to be taking a big third-year leap, and the continued emergence of Ogugua Anunoby, it leaves a big question surrounding the place of Siakam on the team. 

While Siakam is undeniably a good player for the Raptors, after losing Fred VanVleet in the offseason, there is a large gap at the point guard position, filled only by Dennis Schröder. By the midseason trade deadline, the Raptors may find it beneficial to try and stack up on guard talent to make a sustained run at the championship this year. 

Washington Wizards: Is there anyone for the future?

After hitting the reset button by trading away Bradley Beal in the offseason and flipping Chris Paul for Jordan Poole, the Wizards have been left in a position with seemingly no real direction to take. Players such as Kyle Kuzma and Poole leave a lot to be desired for a team trying to contend, and there is a distinct lack of young talent outside of seventh overall pick Bilal Coulibaly, who is also a raw prospect. 

If the first seven games of the season are an indicator for anything, it will likely be a repositioning year for the franchise as they try and assess whether any of the players possess much promise for the future.


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