Burning Questions After 1/3 Of The Season – Eastern Conference Edition

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Cavaliers – Is All-Star Kevin Love back and here to stay?

Much has been made of the Cavaliers big 3 era, but for most of this incarnation of the Cavaliers, they have lived and died by the performance of Lebron James. This year Kevin Love is having arguably the best year of his career, and that is a game-changer for the defending champs. He is posting above career average numbers in points, FG%, 3P%, FT%, and PER not to mention a certain 34 point quarter earlier in the year. With his play to date, the Cavaliers have a serious case for having 3 of the 5 Eastern Conference NBA All-Star Starters.

Hawks – If the Hawks continue to slide do they risk losing Paul Milsap?

 It seemed unthinkable after their hot start, but if things go badly enough do the Hawks consider trading Milsap rather than lose him? Milsap is a talented player who largely flies under the radar, but he is no doubt a bonafide all-star that the Hawks will be hard pressed to replace (just ask Utah, who let Milsap go for nothing).

Celtics – Will Marcus Smart prove to be the long-term answer at back up point?

 His shooting has been just awful and continues to show no improvement. Being classified as a “poor mans” MKG, who in turn was a “poor mans” Tony Allen – is not a path to a successful NBA career. Marcus has to get better and be better if he wants to develop a quality career for himself in the NBA. Boston was highly touted coming into the year – and they’ve had injuries – but to date this season still has to be considered disappointing. If they want to have legitimate shot at luring away Gordon Hayward to come play for his old college coach, this team will need to show signs sooner rather than later.

Bulls – Can the Bulls recapture a top 4 seed heading out of the All Star break?

After an extremely promising start, the unprecedented 3 point shooting of this team has proven to be a mirage. Wade will once again try his best to make his team competitive. The Bulls have been remarkably healthy, and despite his consistent brilliance Wade has had injury issues down the stretch of seasons for most of the last 4 years. If Wade misses any serious time, it’s hard to imagine even Jimmy Butler – who is currently cementing his case as the 2nd best player in the Eastern Conference – dragging this team to the top half of the playoff picture.

Hornets– Can this team return to a consistent top 10 offense?

Ranking at 15th in offrtg currently, squeezing enough offense from their starters has been tough, and Kemba, though destined for his first all-star team – is unlikely to keep shooting the 3-ball at his current 41% clip. Steve Clifford is clearly a plus coach, but the team lost a great deal of scoring with Lin and Lee’s departure. The Marvin Williams vanishing act hasn’t helped things, and a path to competitive play is not immediately apparent. The Hornets may look to deal for a scorer at the deadline, as they could use a scoring big man or another ball handler for their second unit.

Pistons Will a lineup shake-up help the Pistons reach their potential?

Prior to the season and Reggie Jacksons injury I thought that the Pistons were a real threat to win 50 games. After missing the playoffs for 6 straight years they put up the greatest challenge to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, even if it resulted in a sweep. But with players like Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Baynes, Jon Leur and Andre Drummond running Stan Van Gundy’s scheme, the Pistons rank in the top 5 in opponents points allowed in the paint (4th), opponent fast break points (3rd), opponent 2nd chance points (2nd),  and opponent points off turnovers (1st). This is a recipe for long-term success, but so far the Pistons have had difficulty standing out in a clogged eastern conference. Some embarrassing losses have lead coach Stan Van Gundy to promise a change to the starting 5 and other than Andre Drummond it seems anyone, even Reggie Jackson, could be moving to the bench.

Philadelphia – Who will Philly trade to make room in the front court?

 The situation in the front court is ridiculous, and the players themselves have made their opinions well known. Either Noel or Okafor at least has to go, and when Ben Simmons comes back this problem will only grow. Sure Simmons will run the point on offense, but under no circumstances will he guard the point guard on the other end – the Sixers will be looking at playing 3 traditional bigs in a league that is trending toward one or none for large stretches of action. The difficulty is that Okafor and Noel are at their floor value wise, and without even a full season of NBA play under his belt – how comfortable will Colangelo be with handing the keys to the future to Joel Embiid after 2 straight years of seasons lost to injury?

Magic – Will the Magic front office do anything that makes sense?

Despite a clear coaching upgrade in the offseason in the Frank Vogel hire, nothing that the Magic front office has done in the last 2 years has made any sense whatsoever (which made their recent declaration to win a title by 2030 all the more hilarious). This is a team well on the outside of the playoffs making questionable win-now moves and are seemingly always on the bad end of recent deals. Losing Tobias Harris for basically nothing was awful, the Ibaka trade swapped essentially 2 first round picks for a 1 year rental for a declining 4. Their front court is more crowded than the Philadelphia 76ers with no players with similarly high ceilings, and Aaron Gordon who has the highest ceiling of anyone on the Magic, is consistently played out of position at the 3 alongside so many zero shooters that he has great difficulty maximizing his skillset, let alone developing it. This incarnation of the Magic might one day make the playoffs, but they will never win a title. As painful as it sounds, this team maybe should tear it down and start again.

 

Wizards  – Can their starting unit make up for a deficient bench?

It may have felt for a while like Washington’s season was already over, but the truth is that there is very little separation in the conference at the moment. Sitting at 11-14, the Wizards are a mere game and a half out of the 8 seed, and only 3 games out of the 3 seed. Things are far from over for this team, and Wall is on a tear of late. But their bench is among the worst in the league with key contributors Marcus Thornton, Trey Burke, Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre, Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson- Who among these is an all around plus player, or even has one killer NBA skill? You’d be hard pressed to say any of them at this point. Marcin Gortat didn’t help things by voicing this sentiment publically. But Wall and Beal are coming on strong now and they might just have enough to take this team back to the playoffs. Maybe.

Nets – What is Brook Lopez’ worth these days?

With no reason to tank, but no chance of winning, the only drama will be at the trade deadline. Brook Lopez has been a very efficient scorer his entire career, and his 3 point shooting this season modernizes his game just enough. Think about this, he has never averaged more than .2 three point attempts a game for his career. This year he’s taking 5 and a half three point attempts per game, at just below 35% from the field. Despite this he’s never been a great defender and though he’s played every game this season to date, he is always an injury risk. The Nets will want two first round picks for Lopez, but who is willing to give it to them?

Pacers – Who gets traded?

To the disappointment of aspiring Executives of the Year everywhere, the answer is not Paul George. Basically everyone else here is going to be on the table. Larry Birds efforts to shift the Pacers from a lock down defensive monster to a fast paced high scoring small ball team, have resulted in a team that does neither particularly well. Paul George is amazing and the Pacers continue to find talent deep in the draft with the ongoing rise of Miles Turner. But this team has no identity – even with the friendly extension terms of the new CBA. Paul George will eventually be seen as a disgruntled player risk unless this team produces quality – fast.

Miami – Is now the time to tank?

 This season would look a whole lot different if Chris Bosh was playing, but in all likelihood his playing career is done. Staring at a losing season despite having 2 near max players and a few quality 2015 draft picks in Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the time to tank is now. Miami owns their pick this year ( but not next year) and Goran Dragic’s value may never be higher. They gave up 2 first to Phoenix to land him in the first place and it is unlikely they get as much in return, but this team isn’t one player away – and with Wade having taken his talents from south beach – its unclear if Miami remains a free agency destination. It might be time to tank in South Florida, but would Pat Riley ever allow it?

Bucks – Should the Bucks hold Kris Middleton out the rest of the season?

This team has wildly exceeded expectations after a crushing injury to starting shooting guard Kris Middleton to start the year. With a 6 month timetable, that in theory gives Middleton a chance to come back with 13 games left in the season, when Milwaukee could be fighting for a playoff spot.  Largely this is due to the development of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is set to make his first All-Star team and perhaps even 3rd team All-NBA. This kid is stuffing the stat sheet with 22.6 PPG, 9 boards, 6 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and an effective fg% of over 55%. He is the most efficient player on the break in the league and he’s apparently already mastered the Harden like Euro-step. I feel comfortable stating that at this moment he is the best 21 year old in the league, which is crazy considering that Towns and Porzingis are both 21. But how much weight should the Bucks put on this season? Playoff reps are nice, but Middleton is  their most valuable player after Antetokounmpo and Jabari. And rushing him back after a horrific injury may be testing fate.

Knicks – Can the Knicks cobble together something approaching an average defense?

The tools are ostensibly there, but they lack cohesion and effort. The rebounding on both ends has been their saving grace, but they are getting obliterated on alley-oops and back door cuts and allowing an ungodly number of buckets in the painted area. With players like Porzingis, Justin Holiday, Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas and (in theory) Joakim Noah – this team should have the tools to defend. They’ve ranked in the bottom 5 in defense all year long and their recent 3 game losing streak was the inevitable consequence of playing this way. Some nights shots won’t come as easy as others, particularly when Rose has missed time with back spasms – if the Knicks can’t get stops, there’s simply no way they will be a top 4 team in the East by seasons end. Despite being in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference the Knicks still have a negative point differential (- 2.7) and unless they lock in on defense, regression is inevitable.

 

Raptors – Can the Raptors deal their way into true competition with the Cavaliers?

The Raptors are currently posting the most efficient offense of all time. You read that right. A lot of it is due to the scorching hot shooting of contract-year Kyle Lowry, who is a blazing 45.3% from downtown. That is almost 7% higher than last year, which was already a career high. Despite all this, they are not a true threat to the Cavaliers, much less the best of the west. The Raptors front office has done a great job of building on the fly and developing talent even as their team has soared in the rankings and may be content to continue to develop the core without making dramatic changes. With players like DeMar Derozan and Core Joseph still getting better and not approaching any age related decline this could be the path to continued success, but the Raptors might be the best case league wide for being “one player away”. A star caliber power forward or equivalent would send this team to the next level. Demarcus Cousins, Paul Milsap, and Blake Griffin will potentially be available at the trade deadline and the coming free agency. As a franchise experiencing sustained success for the first time, the Raptors might be reluctant to risk future assets in a win-now move. But they should see what’s out there, even if some of the younger guys have to be moved.

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