Eastern Conference preview: One burning question for each team

Nate Duncan has an NBA Eastern Conference preview, with one big question each team faces entering training camp.
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One of the intended consequences of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement has been an increase in player movement via free agency due to shorter contracts. With revamped rosters throughout the league increasing the complexity of NBA schemes, training camp has become more important than ever.

Nearly every team enters the preseason with key questions to answer, whether they're tinkering with the rotation, monitoring players' health, or even carving out an entirely new style of play. So, that is why you are here: To preview the NBA preseason.

Atlanta Hawks: Replacing Carroll

After a dream season a year ago, many (including yours truly) are picking the Hawks for a major regression this year. Part of the reason is the loss of Carroll to the Toronto Raptors. Because Atlanta only had Carroll’s Early Bird rights, matching the four-year, $58 million offer that enticed him north of the border would have proved difficult, and the Hawks did well to recover by getting Tiago Splitter for nothing.

On the other hand, the Hawks now have no one on the roster with an established record of two-way play on the wing to start next to Kyle Korver. Thabo Sefolosha was well-rated by plus-minus metrics last year, but he has never shown the ability to hold up offensively as a regular starter, is now 31 years old, and comes off a severe injury after that regrettable incident last spring with the NYPD.

Atlanta traded the 19th pick (after a trade down from 15) for Tim Hardaway, Jr., but the same numbers that loved Sefolosha exposed Hardaway as one of the worst wings in basketball a year ago.


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Justin Holiday flashed a nice standstill jumper and some defensive potential with the Warriors last year, but he can’t dribble and signed for a near-minimum deal for a reason.

Dennis Schroder did well guarding Bradley Beal in the playoffs and could play alongside Jeff Teague at shooting guard, but he is too slight to defender larger guards, not to mention scoring threats at small forward.

With Korver, 34, coming off a major injury himself, the Hawks need at least two of these players to establish themselves as quality options on the wing, especially on the defensive end.

Boston Celtics: Frontcourt rotation?

With the signing of Amir Johnson, re-signing of Jonas Jerebko, and trade for David Lee, the Celtics now have six established NBA options on the block. Throw in the possibility of going small with Jae Crowder—a rugged former college power forward—at the four, and the frontcourt looks like a total logjam. Johnson provides the best rim-protection, Kelly Olynyk delivers the touch from beyond the arc, and Tyler Zeller has a nice touch around the rim.

Lee might be the best pick-and-roll player of the bunch, while Jonas Jerebko offers a stretch option and the most defensive mobility. Jared Sullinger may end up the odd man out due to his limitations on the defensive side. With all of these options, it is surprising that Boston opted to trade for Lee. It is still unclear if Lee can provide an upgrade, and they need to make second contract decisions on Zeller, Sullinger, and Olynyk in the next two years.

Brad Stevens can try a lot of permutations, but he is really going to have to mix and match to get the most of this group, with Johnson and Jerebko as the only average or above defenders of the group.

Brooklyn Nets: Bench options?

One of the big reasons I expect the Nets to struggle this year is their total lack of proven backups. Given the cost-cutting mode this offseason as Deron Williams was bought out and stretched to get the team under the luxury tax, Brooklyn did well to pick up a number of low-cost fliers with some modicum of upside.

Nevertheless, Brooklyn does not have a single player with a recent history of providing quality backup minutes. Can anyone among Shane Larkin (point guard), Wayne Ellington (shooting guard), first-rounder Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (wing), Thomas Robinson (power forward), or Willie Reed and Andrea Bargnani (center) emerge to provide quality off the bench? Larkin, in particular, is a key player, as presumed starter Jarrett Jack was ineffective last year, even as a backup.

Chicago Bulls: Centers play together?


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One of the key issues for the Bulls last year was the ineffectiveness of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah on the court together. While both have pedigrees that would have made relegation to the bench difficult, Noah compromised offensive spacing at the power forward while the pair proved too slow defensively.

Reports have implied that a change in the starting lineup is imminent. With two solid power forward options in Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, the offense/defense combinations of Mirotic/Noah and Gasol/Gibson are obvious. New coach Fred Hoiberg has a well-known desire to play faster with better offensive spacing — another strike against the two centers. The question is whether he can convince one of two proud players to stomach a bench role.

Charlotte Hornets: Who's at the four?

The Hornets drafted Cody Zeller No. 4 overall in 2013. They signed Marvin Williams to a two-year, $14 million deal back when that was starter money. They traded for Spencer Hawes, who signed a full mid-level deal with the Clippers only a year ago. And most recently they turned down a reported king’s ransom in picks from Boston to draft Frank Kaminsky. They also let Josh McRoberts, potentially a superior player to all of them when healthy, leave for Miami last summer.

Can any of these players emerge?

Al Jefferson’s post-up game and the limited range of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist put a premium on spacing at the four for Charlotte, but the plodding former All-NBA center also needs a mobile rim protector beside him on defense. Unfortunately for the Hornets, scoring rim protectors are essentially unicorns in the NBA.

Kaminsky could be the best offensive option at the four due to his three-point shooting, but the college center figures to struggle defensively in space. Zeller may emerge as the best option. Charlotte apparently drafted Kaminsky to replace him, but he actually played very well by advanced plus-minus metrics last year, and is almost certainly the best defensive option. 

The next step for Zeller this year is making good on the promise of becoming a stretch four. He shot only 35% beyond 16 feet last year, and took only a single three-pointer.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Stars healthy?


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A healthy Cleveland team does not have a ton of questions to answer, but with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving coming off major surgeries and Timofey Mozgov recovering from a "minor" scope, it remains to be seen how many minutes any of them will play. Anderson Varejao will also be counted on as a fourth big when he returns from an Achilles injury.

Fortunately for Cleveland, the East does not project to have another great team this year. Even if a team surprises like the Hawks did a year ago, the Cavs, no doubt, have plenty of confidence in their ability to win on the road against lesser teams.

Detroit Pistons: Three-and-D future?

Last year, in an attempt to create the best team of Eastern Conference players, I lamented the lack of three-and-D wings in the East. But Detroit now has two players on the roster with that potential in third-year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and rookie small forward Stanley Johnson.

KCP quietly ranked 13th in three-point attempts a season ago. While he shot only an average percentage, that kind of volume bodes well if he can up his proficiency. Only 32% of his attempts were classified as “open” (no defender within six feet) and 6% “wide open,” compared to league averages of 40% and 6%, respectively, per Nylon Calculus. Considering the difficulty of his attempts, he shot well. Perhaps more open shots will come his way with better floor spacing around him in Stan Van Gundy’s preferred style of offense this year. Caldwell-Pope also flashed defensive potential in the passing lanes, and has the athleticism to become an above-average defender as he matures.

Johnson, a 19-year-old rookie, would appear to have less of a shot at making an impact this year. But at 6'7", 242 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, a nasty competitive streak, and an improving jump shot, Johnson also fits the three-and-D mold. With only the disgruntled Marcus Morris as potential starting option in front of him on the depth chart, it would be a great sign for Pistons fans if Johnson can earn big minutes right away with his performance in camp.

The combination of the two could give Detroit unique versatility on the wing in the future.

Indiana Pacers: Starting bigs?


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The Pacers underwent one of the more under-publicized makeovers this offseason, transitioning from traditional plodders Roy Hibbert and David West to no established starting bigs at all.

Lavoy Allen, Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, and rookie Myles Turner figure to vie for those spots, but Indiana also has made serious noise about playing Paul George at power forward. With the East having few large post-up players to contend with at the position, it could prove a solid strategy if George is up for it mentally and physically after his scary leg injury last August.

Training camp should give an indication to whether coach Frank Vogel is serious about employing that strategy, which would enable him to play more talented guards on the floor together.

Miami Heat: What can McRoberts do?

Off-season grades: Southeast Division

Most of the focus in Miami has been on the club’s off-season additions, but perhaps the most important training camp question centers on a returnee who has barely been seen in a Heat uniform.

After missing nearly all of last season with a meniscus repair, McRoberts could provide a key element for a Miami team that may lack shooting. Dwayne Wade lack three-point range entirely, and Luol Deng is an inconsistent, low-volume shooter beyond the arc.

McRoberts’s shooting and playmaking will be crucial if he proves healthy.

Milwaukee Bucks: Parker recovery

Jabari Parker was off to an excellent start in his rookie campaign before tearing his ACL last season. Reports indicate his recovery since then has been good, and he supposedly has improved his body.

That said, the same report stated Parker is now 255 pounds, which is a little worrisome when it was his explosiveness and change of direction that made him such an outstanding prospect. It is also a concern since Parker suffered a broken foot in high school along with last year’s ACL tear.

The key to watch for Parker will be whether his fearlessness and explosion attacking the basket is still there. Another question is whether he has extended his spot-up range beyond the three-point line during rehab. With only Khris Middleton as a proven three-point shooter in the projected starting lineup, Parker’s ability to space the floor when will be a critical component in allowing the Bucks’ talented players room to work.

New York Knicks: PF starter?


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The Knicks depth chart doesn't list a single player whose natural position is power forward. Derrick Williams has shuttled between the three and the four his entire career (with the latter being his "better" position), and Kristaps Porzingis may be too slow to defend there. Kyle O’Quinn struggled when he played power forward in Orlando, and the Knicks probably don’t have the wing depth (and maybe the desire) to play Carmelo Anthony at power forward much.

The competition will likely come down to Williams and Porzingis. It would be a great long-term sign for the Knicks if Porzingis could seize the job in camp, but that appears unlikely.

Orlando Magic: Best lineup?

The Magic are Timberwolves East in some respects, with almost too much young talent for the available minutes.

Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo appear entrenched in the backcourt, but Aaron Gordon and Tobias Harris are both best offensively at power forward. With Payton's shot lacking and Oladipo's developing, starting another unproven shooter like Gordon or Harris at small forward could cause major spacing issues.

Mario Hezonja could help solve that, but the No. 5 overall pick likely lacks enough refinement for Scott Skiles at this point. Evan Fournier is another option, but he hasn’t nearly the long-term potential of the other candidates.

Center Nikola Vucevic has a long-term contract but is limited defensively. Channing Frye could help solve their shooting woes, but his best position is also center. He is no longer quick enough to effectively defend at power forward, and his shooting makes a much bigger difference against opposing centers. Frye is probably the best fit if Orlando wants to start Harris and Gordon together, but he isn’t of Vucevic’s quality overall at this stage of his career.

The distribution of playing time this season should be fascinating to watch.

Philadelphia 76ers: SG spot?

The eighth pick in 2014, Stauskas was completely forgotten in Sacramento a year ago, emerging only to star as a defensive traffic cone in Klay Thompson’s 37-point quarter. The Kings wrote him off completely after one year, treating him as dead weight in their salary dump to the Sixers in July.

Stauskas’s potential should not be completely dismissed after a year amidst the coaching and front-office turmoil in Sacramento. But if he can’t win the starting job over the likes of Hollis Thompson for a Sixers organization focused on developing talent, it would bode poorly for his chances of ever making much of an impact.

Toronto Raptors: Will style change?


Despite retaining what many would consider their three best players in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors have hinted at a major stylistic change this offseason. Gone are defensive sieves Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams, replaced by stalwart defenders Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll. But the Raptors also lost their best interior defender, Amir Johnson. Though limited by his chronic ankle injuries in the playoffs, he was still the best Toronto had defensively, especially when healthy. Will the perimeter upgrades be enough to offset Johnson’s loss?

Another key variable is whether Carroll will be used at the four. His ability to play there in small lineups was not utilized on an Atlanta team with two frontcourt stars, but talk out of Toronto is that he will play extensive minutes there. Patrick Patterson returns, and the Raptors also signed Luis Scola. Whether Toronto commits to starting Carroll at power forward or sticks with Patterson and Scola is yet to be seen.

Washington Wizards: Small ball

The Wizards face similar questions as their first-round foes from a season ago.

“Playoff Randy Wittman” obliterated the Raptors with small-ball units utilizing Paul Pierce and Otto Porter at forward, and while he might want to keep playing with a stretch option at power forward, it is unclear if the Wizards have the personnel right now.

Porter is not quite as proven as people think, having languished on the bench most of the year until his breakout playoffs. And even that was a bit overstated. His performance — 12 of 32 on threes, 14.1 PER, and 14 percent usage rate — was not so spectacular that he should simply be penciled in as the starter at small forward. That said, Porter is only 22 and already a solid defender, so the odds are he gets there eventually.

Behind Porter, Jared Dudley is recuperating from back surgery and may not be back until December. Alan Anderson played effectively in small units the last two years in Brooklyn, but he may be needed for depth on the wing without Dudley and Kelly Oubre is unlikely to be ready.

As much as they would like to open up the offense, the Wizards have much more depth in bigs than on the wing, at least until Dudley returns. Perhaps Wittman will adopt a hybrid strategy by getting Drew Gooden more minutes at the four, but Gooden will be 34 when the season starts. It is quite possible his solid play in limited minutes the last two years will prove an aberration, in which case the brave new "Playoff Wittman" era may be on hold.