Biggest questions facing Eastern Conference’s best teams
The NBA is set to return to action at the end of July, and numerous questions pertaining to the logistics of the league’s plan remain. While we are learning the answers to those questions gradually, NBA teams must now question how they will perform when the season does return.
With playoff basketball on the horizon, here are the most critical questions surrounding the championship contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Milwaukee Bucks: How will Eric Bledsoe perform during the playoffs?
The first-place Milwaukee Bucks have to feel confident about what their top two players have done this season. Giannis Anetokounmpo looks poised to capture his second straight MVP award, while two-time All-Star Khris Middleton is playing the best basketball of his career. The Bucks can trust their two stars to deliver come playoff time, but questions arise surrounding their other contributors.
Eric Bledsoe struggled substantially throughout the Bucks’ playoff run last season. His points per game average plummeted six points from his regular-season average of 19.7 to 13.7 in the playoffs, while he connected on just 23.6 percent of his threes. Bledsoe’s overall ineffectiveness as a shooter rendered him almost unplayable next to Anetokounmpo; opposing defenses were able to help off of Bledsoe without any repercussions. With the memory of last season’s defeat in the Eastern Conference Finals still fresh and Anetokounmpo’s potential free agency looming large, Bledsoe’s performance in this year’s playoffs will factor largely into the future of the Milwaukee Bucks’ franchise.
Toronto Raptors: How far can their experience take them?
After losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, the Toronto Raptors’ roster became an enigma across the NBA. Possessing a mix of talented veterans and emerging young players, many expected the Raptors to begin to sell off pieces from their championship core to jumpstart their rebuild. Instead, the Raptors have harnessed the experience and toughness that comes from hoisting a Larry O’Brien Trophy to play some of the most inspired basketball throughout the league. Their intensity starts on the defensive end as the Raptors have allowed the fewest points per game in the NBA while forcing the second-most turnovers. Down the stretch of close games, Toronto is a dangerous team that seldom seems overwhelmed by the moment.
While the reigning champs may not have the talent on their roster to overcome Milwaukee for a second straight season, no one will want to see the Toronto Raptors this postseason.
Boston Celtics: How small will Brad Stevens go?
With all due respect to Daniel Thies and the incredible season he’s having for Boston, the Celtics’ five best players are Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart. A combination of injuries and Brad Stevens’ reluctance to play without a traditional big man has resulted in the Celtics’ five best players only sharing the court for 15 minutes this season. In the playoffs, smaller lineups can create an advantage, as they allow for switching across all positions when defending the pick and roll. Still, many coaches opt against downsizing as they fear leaving smaller players in compromised positions defensively. For the Celtics, however, Tatum, Brown, and Smart are all elite defenders, experienced in guarding larger players.
While it’s far too early to declare this unit the next Hamptons Five, this lineup may be the ace up Stevens’ sleeve.
Miami Heat: Could Bam guard Giannis?
For this question to be answered, the Miami Heat would first have to defeat either the Indiana Pacers or the Philadelphia 76ers in what would likely be a grueling first-round playoffs series. But if Miami can come out victorious, the stage would be set for an old-fashioned battle in the paint, featuring two of the NBA’s premier big men.
Bam Adebayo and the Heat have defeated the Bucks in both of their matchups this season, thanks in no small part to Adebayo’s defensive efforts. In the two games against the Bucks, Adebayo limited Anetokounmpo to 8-23 from the field (34.8 percent) as the primary defender. The 13 points Anetokounmpo scored in the Bucks’ March 2nd loss to the Heat matched his lowest scoring output from any game this season. While no one would be able to shut down Anetokounmpo completely, Adebayo’s size, agility, and timing make him the closest thing to a Giannis-stopper in the NBA.
Indiana Pacers: What kind of player will Oladipo be after the hiatus?
Time and time again, patience has proved to be the most important virtue for a star player recovering from an injury. After returning from a knee injury suffered in January of 2019, Victor Oladipo was limited to just 13 games before the season was placed on hiatus. During those games, Oladipo experienced the customary struggles associated with returning from a significant injury, while showing glimpses of the star he was. With Oladipo out of the lineup at the beginning of the season, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis were able to form one of the NBA’s most lethal pick and roll combinations. A healthy Oladipo only makes that action more dangerous as he could function as a release valve waiting on the wing to attack the compromised defense. If Oladipo is fully healthy, the Pacers have assembled a roster of capable supporting players ready to follow behind their leader. But for the Indiana Pacers to contend for the Eastern Conference title this year, Oladipo will need to show more than just flashes of the player he was during the 2017-18 season.
Philadelphia 76ers: Can Al Horford serve as an integral piece in the playoffs?
Last summer, the 76ers went against convention when they signed Al Horford to a four-year $109 million deal. The deal was questionable for several reasons. Not only will Horford be 36 years old in the last year of his contract, but his best position is center, the same position that the Sixers franchise cornerstone Joel Embiid plays. Factor in the limited spacing on offense on account of Ben Simmons’ phobia of taking threes, and Philadelphia’s signing of Horford seems almost impossible to justify.
While the 76ers’ jumbo three have played well defensively, they hold the fourth-worst offensive net rating of any trio that has played more than 400 minutes together this season. In the playoffs, where passing windows only get tighter, and shooting is placed at an even higher premium, it’s hard to imagine Embiid, Horford, and Simmons prospering offensively. If the 76ers’ postseason ends in disappointment, they will likely be asking themselves if they want to keep paying their backup center upwards of $26 million a year. And while Horford may become Philadelphia’s scapegoat, another playoff exit could spark the question no one wants to ask in Philadelphia: how well do Embiid and Simmon fit together?