Key Questions For Each Eastern Conference Contender

Breaking down the biggest questions each Eastern Conference contender faces if the NBA season resumes.
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There is really little sense speculating on when the NBA will return as the league’s coronavirus suspension rolls into its third week. The crisis has largely shut down the United States, and there remains caution whether the 2019-20 season will resume at all, let alone by June 1. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be consideration for how the season will pan out if games are played in the coming months.

Players and coaches aren’t stopping their preparation for a potential run to the Finals. The questions surrounding the Lakers, Bucks, Clippers and other championship contenders are the same that existed less than a month ago. Are Giannis and Co. equipped to survive the Eastern Conference? Does LeBron James have enough help to outlast Kawhi and the Clippers? These questions will take center stage as soon as a return date is announced. We at The Crossover broke down the key question marks remaining for the slate of Eastern Conference contenders.

Milwaukee Bucks – Will We See MVP Giannis?

There remains concern over the sturdiness of the Bucks’ supporting cast, with memories of Eric Bledsoe’s playoff failures fresh in the minds of Milwaukee fans. Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a co-star quite like Anthony Davis or Paul George, and the Bucks’ second unit still lacks a trusted point guard. But those question marks can quickly dissipate if Antetokounmpo plays like an MVP. The Greek Freak is currently in the midst of his best season yet, and his dominance is a tide that lifts all boats in Milwaukee. Middleton has more open looks than every second fiddle in the league, and he’s almost in the midst of a 50-40-90 season. Robin Lopez is thriving as a tag-team rim protector with Antetokounmpo. Bledsoe remains an effective playmaker, so long as he doesn’t have the keys to the car. Antetokounmpo in MVP form is likely a death sentence for any non-Los Angeles team.

But can we necessarily count on an MVP effort from Antetokounmpo? Recent evidence suggests otherwise. Toronto ripped off four straight wins against the Bucks last season by sagging off Antetokounmpo en masse, forcing a 43.5% mark from the field in Game 3 through Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Perhaps Antetokounmpo can turn the corner this year.

The first 60 games of 2019-20 provided optimism as Antetokounmpo looks to shake last year’s playoff exit. He’s shooting a mildly respectable 30.6% from three this season, and his attempts have nearly doubled compared to 2018-10. He’s shooting over 40% from 8-16 feet, an encouraging sign considering what he’ll face in the postseason. Antetokounmpo is the most dominant driving force in the league. Even a few made jumpers can be enough to spook a sagging defense. It’s not a complicated formula. If Antetokounmpo doesn’t throw up a host of bricks, Milwaukee should be on a fast track to the Finals.

Toronto Raptors – Can the Same Bench Mob Emerge?

The Raptors wouldn’t have won last year’s title without dealing for Kawhi Leonard, but it wasn’t simply one move that swung the title. Marc Gasol was a key deadline addition, and Serge Ibaka turned back the clock with a collection of clutch playoff performances. Toronto’s bench was also a revelation.

The Raptors’ bench mob was one of the fiercest second units in the league last season, making Toronto a team that actually thrived when Leonard sat. Lineups featuring Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka outscored teams by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. The VanVleet, Siakam, Danny Green trio had a net rating of plus-18.3. Toronto largely mauled opposing benches en route to the Finals last year. Can Nick Nurse replicate that dominance in the 2020 postseason?

There’s a similar infrastructure in place this season, though with a touch less depth. VanVleet has graduated to the starting lineup, and the likes of Pat McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher have assumed additional responsibility. Boucher remains an intriguing big man. The other two have their shortcomings. Still, this is a veteran team that has largely cruised through the regular season. Toronto has a strong case as the best Eastern Conference team behind Milwaukee if its core continues to produce.

Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Celtics – Will Size Shortcomings Loom Large?

There’s the obvious temptation to peg Jayson Tatum as the bellwether for Boston in the playoffs. Contenders rise and fall with the superstar, and the drop from March Tatum to December Tatum is massive. Still, there should be confidence that Tatum’s recent stretch is more a harbinger of things to come than an outlier. Tatum’s shot profile continues to improve. He looks stronger and more confident attacking the rim by the month. The Celtics have a blue chip talent with a surprisingly large playoff sample size. He shouldn’t shrink from the moment in June or July.

Tatum and the Celtics will put up plenty of points in the playoffs. Tatum is one of four impressive playmakers on the roster, all of whom can put up 20-plus points in a playoff game. Getting stops may prove more difficult, especially as the game slows down and becomes increasingly physical. Boston is vulnerable on the offensive glass, with 6’8” Daniel Theis serving as its primary rim protector. Enes Kanter remains a turnstile. Grant Williams fights valiantly, though he’s also undersized. A player of Tristan Thompson’s caliber could have changed the picture.

Boston is inclined to go small anyway and ride Marcus Smart alongside Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker. The plan exacerbates the Celtics’ size issue, but perhaps leaning in on speed and versatility can make up for the interior woes. Such a strategy remains shaky against Giannis or Joel Embiid. Brad Stevens will need to get creative to avoid dying by the glass in the playoffs.

Miami Heat – Are the Kids Ready for Prime Time?

We said the same thing about Erik Spoelstra less than a decade ago, back when he was trying to lead LeBron and the Heat to the championship in 2011 and 2012. Spoelstra quickly proved his chops and has since emerged as one of the league’s best coaches after the early skepticism, and the 2019-20 Heat are perhaps his greatest achievement thus far. Miami entered the coronavirus suspension on a 52-win pace, riding Jimmy Butler and a collection of youngsters and misfits to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference. Spoelstra’s work this season shouldn’t go unappreciated.

Miami could run into early trouble against the wrong matchup in the playoffs, though. There is a lot riding on the performance of Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Bam Adebayo is a bit overqualified to be mentioned in the aforementioned trio, yet he has yet to prove his play in the postseason. Jimmy Butler won’t shy away from a big shot. But is he talented enough to go toe-to-toe with Embiid, Tatum or Giannis across a seven-game series? An uphill climb may await. Perhaps Miami’s youngsters will continue to shine. Robinson may be the league’s best shooter. Spoelstra has point guard flexibility with Nunn and Goran Dragic. But feels closer to a nice story than a true contender. Maybe this year can be a stepping stone to bigger things in the summers of 2021 and 2022.

Philadelphia 76ers – Can Philly Hit the Reset Button?

The coronavirus outbreak is a true tragedy around the globe, and there is little positivity to be found as the world fights the pandemic. But from a purely basketball standpoint, a lengthy suspension could help Brett Brown and the 76ers.

The health benefit of the league’s suspension is clear for Philadelphia. Ben Simmons was out of the lineup with a back injury before the hiatus, while Joel Embiid missed five straight games with a shoulder injury before returning on March 11. Simmons and Embiid should now be able to get fully healthy by the time games resume, a necessity for a Sixers team that has struggled with little depth throughout the season.

It’s not just a physical healing that can fix Philadelphia’s season. Perhaps the time off could lead to some much-needed soul searching and strategizing for Brown, Simmons and Co. The 76ers were in the midst of a nightmare season before the suspension, plagued by the same offensive issues that simmered for much of last year. The offseason didn’t bring an improved Simmons or a happy Embiid. Brown’s spot at the end of the bench wasn’t exactly safe. Perhaps Simmons returns with a passable jumper. Embiid may be in the best shape of his life. It may be wishful thinking, but Philadelphia is not devoid of elite talent. An engaged unit could make a surprise run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy.