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Biggest Questions for Every Eastern Conference Team

How often will we see Brooklyn’s Big Three? How will the 76ers handle the Ben Simmons situation? Assessing one key question for every team in the East.

The 2021 offseason didn’t see much seismic movement among the league’s superstars, but there are plenty of old faces in new places entering 2021–22. The Bulls and Knicks have added quality veterans as they look to avoid the play-in tournament, while the Heat have reloaded in pursuit of a return to the Finals. We could see further shakeup in the coming weeks with a Ben Simmons trade, and as for Philadelphia’s neighbor to the north, there remains significant uncertainty in Brooklyn ahead of Opening Night.

So what's lingering on each team’s mind as we enter the first week of training camp? Let’s start with the Eastern Conference as we assess one key question for each club.

76ers—How will the Ben Simmons situation be resolved?

It’s not totally implausible for Simmons to play for Philadelphia again, especially as the prospect of missed game checks looms. Joel Embiid and Doc Rivers effectively offered to welcome back Simmons with open arms at the team’s media day Monday, and perhaps Simmons would rather work to repair the relationship in Philadelphia than join a complete noncontender. The smart money is still on a Simmons trade in the coming months, though it isn’t exactly a fait accompli.

There appears to be at least some degree of interest in Simmons from other organizations, and the return package could shape the 76ers’ season. The first priority in a Simmons deal should be acquiring talent to help the current roster. Embiid is in the prime of his career. Wasting peak years with an injury-prone center is organizational malpractice. And while there is no perfect swap for Simmons, perhaps the right move could raise Philadelphia’s offensive functionality in the postseason. Acquiring CJ McCollum would give the 76ers a solid, if unspectacular, late-game initiator. A deal with the Timberwolves could land D’Angelo Russell and other pieces. The Spurs have a number of enticing young wings and guards, with Derrick White and Dejounte Murray standing as the most valuable trade chips. Are any of these options perfect? Not exactly. But if Simmons stands firm on his request to be dealt, Philadelphia could land a solid collection of complementary pieces around Embiid.

Bucks—Can Giannis hit another level?

Rodney Hood and Grayson Allen are in while P.J. Tucker is out, but this is largely the same Bucks roster as last year’s championship squad. The only major change could come from the Finals MVP himself. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP and arguably the greatest player alive, though perhaps his game hasn’t peaked just yet. He continued to show greater confidence as a shooter beyond the foul line in the postseason, and his feel as a late-game initiator grew by the series. The Nets and Lakers enter the season as the league’s presumed superteams, but will that even matter if Antetokounmpo destroys every defense in sight? The defending champions are feeling a touch discounted as we assess the top tier of title contenders.

Bulls—Are the offseason additions enough?

The Bulls jettisoned one veteran core in 2017 as they shipped Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, deeming their then leading man unworthy of further investment before diving into a rebuild. Now facing a similar dilemma with Zach LaVine, Chicago is taking the opposite tactic. Perhaps this summer’s spending spree will rectify the error made with Butler less than a half decade ago.

The Bulls have provided an intriguing, albeit unspectacular, supporting cast around LaVine as he approaches free agency next summer. Center Nikola Vučević was acquired last season to provide spacing and skill in the frontcourt. The Bulls added Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso this offseason, providing a trio of quality playmakers for a roster desperately lacking creation. Ball is the best upside play as he grows into a reliable spot-up shooter. DeRozan tallied a career-high 6.9 assists per game last season. Just how gracefully this group will age remains an open question, and there is an obvious ceiling without a real second star next to LaVine. But after a botched rebuild, Chicago may view a noncontending playoff team as a success. If such a scenario keeps LaVine in town, it will be.

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Cavaliers—Is Sexland the backcourt of the future?

Cleveland has won just 60 games in the three seasons since LeBron James’s second departure, and despite some semblance in talent, this remains a roster with little direction. A looming decision in the backcourt should help resolve matters.

Guard Collin Sexton is set to enter restricted free agency in the summer of 2022, where he could command a nine-figure deal. Sexton turned in his best statistical season as a professional last season as he averaged 24.3 points and 4.4 assists per game, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that a lot of his scoring was effectively empty calories. Cleveland needs to show some semblance of promise with its young core of Sexton, Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. Another lost season could bring a new backcourt partner to join Garland as the rebuild trudges on.

Celtics’ Jayson Tatum on Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins

Celtics—Could we see MVP Tatum?

It was a turbulent 2020–21 for Jayson Tatum and the Celtics. Boston finished the regular season 36–36 before a first-round exit against the Nets, marking a serious step back for a presumed Eastern Conference contender. Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart both failed to play more than 45 games, and while Tatum averaged a career-high 26.4 points per game, he spent a large portion of the season dealing with aftereffects of contracting COVID-19. Boston’s season ending on June 1 felt like somewhat of a necessary respite as Tatum & Co. bowed out of the playoffs.

We could very well see Tatum in the MVP race in 2021–21 alongside Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić and the rest of the league’s top stars. An improved rotation should help Boston compete for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference, and Tatum remains his team’s unquestioned top option despite Jaylen Brown’s continued emergence. If Tatum nears 30 points per game and Boston stays healthy, we could see the Celtics back on the path to Finals contention.

Hawks—Will De’Andre Hunter be 100%?

Atlanta sports one of the NBA’s deepest rosters, and with Trae Young ascending as one of the game’s top offensive guards, the playoffs are a near-guarantee in 2022. But can Atlanta push through to the Finals? That may depend on De’Andre Hunter.

The 23-year-old forward looked like a franchise pillar in the making in his second pro season in 2020–21, averaging 15 points and 4.8 rebounds per game before knee injuries limited him to just 18 contests. The expectations now placed on Hunter may seem a bit lofty given his modest statistical profile, though this is a player far greater than the sum of his parts. Hunter can expertly defend both smaller guards and larger wings, and a solid three-point stroke is augmented by some serious verve and creativity off the bounce. Hunter’s presence ties together Atlanta’s roster, providing a strong two-way wing as Young lights up the scoreboard and Clint Capela protects the paint. A healthy Hunter will make the Hawks a difficult out for any opponent in the ’22 postseason.

Heat—Will we see the same old Kyle Lowry?

The Heat are always lurking as a destination for the game’s top superstars, with a potential coup of Kawhi Leonard serving as the rumor du jour in recent years. As Leonard re-upped with the Clippers, Miami took another path. And while Kyle Lowry is no Leonard, he could still have a marked impact on the championship race. Lowry is a perfect fit in theory on both ends for Erik Spoelstra’s squad, serving as a brilliant defensive pest and polished lead playmaker. If Lowry remains a knockdown three-point shooter, Miami may be the best Eastern Conference team outside of Brooklyn and Milwaukee.

Hornets—What’s next for LaMelo Ball?

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Michael Jordan may have (finally) found his groove as an executive, placing a talented young roster around LaMelo Ball as the brilliant young guard enters his second season. Just how much can Ball elevate the group around him? The answer will define Charlotte’s season. Ball shot just 32% on pull-up threes last year, and his 16.3% turnover rate added a gray hair or two to the head of coach James Borrego. Ball is a prodigious passer and a truly elite athlete. Refining his shot selection and decision-making could vault the Hornets in the Eastern Conference.

Knicks—Is there more scoring punch in 2021–22?

New York made a surprise run to the postseason in 2020–21 behind the league’s No. 2 defense, only to get summarily dismissed in the first round by Trae Young and the Hawks. The loss to Atlanta highlighted the Knicks’ lack of playmaking and scoring, a formula comfortable for Tom Thibodeau, though unsuitable for the modern game. New York took steps to rectify the issue this offseason.

Guards Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker are New York’s two most notable offseason additions, and while neither are sniffing All-NBA status anytime soon, the duo could be critical in keeping the Knicks out of the dreaded play-in tournament. Fournier is a large wing with a smooth stroke. Walker has been an elite offensive initiator before, though perhaps his athleticism has been zapped in recent years. The Knicks needed to become respectable again before they could chase any sort of superstar. With Fournier and Walker joining the fold, New York could be more than a scrappy underdog in the 2022 playoffs.

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Nets—How often will we see the Big Three?

It’s hard to see any team knock off Brooklyn if its Big Three remains intact, though that is anything but a guarantee as opening night approaches. We still don’t know whether Kyrie Irving will play in home games. Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden each battled injury in 2020–21, and none of the three superstars are in the front ends of their respective careers. Steve Nash may have to scavenge the bench for minutes more than many assume.

Perhaps this is much ado about nothing. Harden is effectively an iron man by modern superstar standards. Durant played 48 minutes in Game 7 against the Bucks last season. We could see Irving show up to Brooklyn healthy and vaccinated within weeks, ending a swirl of controversy created by, well, himself. Yet for an assemblage of talent that should make the championship inevitable, the situation in Brooklyn remains remarkably shaky. Tracking the Nets’ Big Three will likely be the premier story of the season.

Magic—Is Jalen Suggs a franchise anchor?

The Magic are neither good nor exciting, entering 2021–22 with little idea of who exactly comprises their young core. Are Markelle Fultz and R.J. Hampton bankable rotation guards? Can Wendell Carter Jr. live up to his lottery billing? Jonathan Isaac is likely the team’s most valued asset, but even his future isn't clear as he returns from knee surgery. As uncertainty looms in spades, a bankable piece would be greatly appreciated. Perhaps Jalen Suggs can fill that void.

Suggs checks all the boxes of a potential franchise leader as the No. 5 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. The Gonzaga product anchored a 31–1 team in his lone collegiate season, and despite just one year under Mark Few, Suggs is a relatively polished product on both ends. He’s a twitchy and athletic defender with a knack for forcing turnovers, and he should bring stability guiding Orlando’s half-court attack. The learning curve for rookie point guards is always steep. But Suggs is mature beyond his years. A quick adjustment to the professional game would add a much-needed jolt of energy to the franchise.

Pacers—How does Rick Carlisle manage the twin towers?

Indiana sports a pair of talented offensive bigs in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, yet questions persist whether they can share the floor together long-term given positional overlap. Can new coach Rick Carlisle get the most out of both players? He seems to be optimistic as opening night approaches.

“I don’t think it’s a complicated issue with them,” Carlisle told The Athletic on Sept. 23. “They’re both young, and they still have a chance to improve their three-point shooting, so they worked very hard on it this summer and they’re going to continue to work on it.”

Carlisle’s optimism is understandable. Turner shot a respectable 33.5% from three last season on 4.4 attempts per game. Sabonis is a gifted post presence with touch around the foul line. Indiana’s offense isn’t exactly explosive, and dedicating significant possessions to a pair of bigs isn’t the most analytic-friendly approach. But as T.J. Warren remains sidelined, such a formula may prove necessary.

Pistons—Is Cade Cunningham the real deal?

Detroit’s youngsters showed some promise last year, most notably undersized center Isaiah Stewart. But just one player on the current roster can take the Pistons out of the dregs of the Eastern Conference. No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham enters the NBA as a polished playmaker and offensive initiator, and while he’s not a sure thing à la Anthony Davis and LeBron James, he should immediately raise Detroit’s floor by a significant margin. Assessing Cunningham’s ceiling is a different question. There are some questions about his explosiveness and ability to separate, perhaps limiting his ability to be more than a mere All-Star. We’ll address those questions at a later date. If Cunningham exits 2021–22 with the Rookie of the Year in hand, Pistons fans will be satisfied.

Raptors—Will Toronto pick a direction?

Kyle Lowry is now in Miami, but the Raptors don’t exactly seem intent on tumbling down the Eastern Conference standings in 2021–22. Toronto added veteran guard Goran Dragić in exchange for Lowry, and there are expectations of a return to form for Pascal Siakam. Considering the organizational infrastructure at play with Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri, a return to the playoffs wouldn’t be a surprise whatsoever.

But perhaps pushing for a middling playoff seed isn’t the most prudent path in an increasingly competitive Eastern Conference. This is the youngest Raptors roster in recent memory, and both Siakam and Fred VanVleet are under contract through at least 2022–23. Scottie Barnes is unlikely to be an instant-impact rookie. Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa need seasoning to become starting-caliber bigs. If Toronto struggles out of the gate, Dragić and potentially Siakam could enter trade talks as the calendar turns to ’22.

Wizards—Does Bradley Beal have enough help?

Beal continues to remain an anomaly in the modern superstar landscape, rejecting the idea of a trade demand at every turn despite no true chance at championship competition. If Washington is at least competitive, it’s hard to see Beal’s frustration boiling over.

Will the Wizards be able to clear that (admittedly modest) goal? There’s the talent on hand for a respectable team on most nights. Spencer Dinwiddie will provide a legitimate lead playmaker alongside Beal, and the trio of players received in the Russell Westbrook trade will help bolster what was a shaky rotation. Ultimately, Beal’s remaining time in Washington could take a conventional path. Washington will likely ship Beal at a reduced price at the trade deadline, or he’ll play out the clock in 2021–22 before becoming the big fish of the free-agent class.

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