Every team throughout the league will face a certain amount of adversity they did not imagine heading into the season. In October, the slate is wiped clean. Every team is a blank canvas with a gimmer of hope, and aspirations they will be the last standing.
Until that first domino begins to fall.
Last year the Denver Nuggets appeared to finally hold the right pieces for a championship run, gliding through each opponent then bam—Jamal Murray hits the hardwood. The Brooklyn Nets marched into the postseason with confidence only awaiting their demise with the injuries to Kyrie and Harden.
Many expect the eventual collision between the Lakers and Nets in the Finals come April. As we witnessed last year, we have no idea what’s going to happen. We may think we know, but often we find ourselves amazed at what is to come.
With that, I introduced a new series in which I analyze each team’s largest question mark heading into next season. Categorized by division, I give my opinion on what could end up being the Achilles heel to each team’s potential. First, we begin with the Atlantic division.
New York Knicks
Can they put points on the board?
It sounds simple. Just put the ball in the hoop Knicks that’s all you have to do. We know it’s not that simple, especially for a team like the Knicks where they focus most of their attention on the defensive end of the court. Tom Thibodeau is renown for his defensive prowess as a coach, and he has reunited the New York faithful with a familiar rugged attitude to their style of basketball.
The problem with the Knicks is that they don’t have an elite scorer and a consistent number two option. Some might say Randle is an elite scorer, he made the All-Star team, he won Most Improved Player. I still don’t think he is an elite scorer and I think his production relative to his team’s success was evident as we watched the Knicks score 89 points in an elimination game.
Back in the day, 89 points were more than enough to get the job done but that’s not the case anymore. These offenses are too high-powered comprised of scorers who are unguardable a majority of the time. The Knicks need to find consistent game-in and game-out scorers.
Although Randle isn’t an elite scorer, he is a consistent one. He needs a partner. RJ Barret showed flashes of his potential but it stopped at just that—flashes. Alec Burks played very well in spots during the postseason, but he hasn’t traditionally been a guy you can rely on for 20 points a game. Derrick Rose was a massive bright spot for this team and held them in contention during that Hawks series, but he is more of a supporting player at this stage.
They signed Kemba Walker during the off-season which can bring them a serious boost in the scoring department, but his largest question has always been availability. Last year, the Knicks were 26th in the league in scoring at 107 PPG. Their defense brings enough punch to where they don’t need to be in the top 15 or even 20 to be a good team, but if they want to make a deep playoff run they need constant production.
So where do they get it from?
It’s pretty straightforward here, in my opinion, if the Nets stay healthy they are an absolute lock to at least go to the Finals. When you have a trio of scorers the game has never seen before, I just don’t see how you can beat that unless you have the scorers and defenders to match and nobody else does.
The most significant factor in my opinion here is the play of James Harden. He is often known to be an isolation, ball-dominant player, but his play towards the end of the season was the best I had ever seen him. Yes, we’ve seen the miraculous 50 point triple-doubles, but with the Nets, he was being a fantastic floor general and when you have KD and Kyrie to pass the ball too it’s almost impossible to stop.
As I said before, the injuries to Harden and Kyrie derailed their championship chances, so if they stay healthy they will be right back on track. Unfortunately for small market fans like myself, the team holding the trophy at the end is usually the most talented team. Now that doesn’t always happen. There are a few anomalies in this day and age, but this is the most talented threesome of athletes possibly in all team sports.
They are at a championship or bust level. It will be a complete failure if they don't capture a ring and what stands between them and that ring is health.
What are they going to do with Ben Simmons?
This question has been looming ever since the conclusion of last season. Countless reports surface each week about how they might move him, but it is becoming pretty clear they would like to move on. Now, reports are circulating that Simmons does not want to be in Philly and does not intend to report to training camp if they cannot move him.
Philly remains confident they will get a star or an incredible package of assets if they move him, but teams seem to be cautious as they look to acquire Simmons. His playoff performances were disappointing last year, but he is still viewed as an elite player and I think he can flourish given a new environment.
Both sides would benefit from a trade. Simmons needs to play in a system that caters to his skillsets and Philly needs another scoring companion to pair with Embiid. They would like to get a proven, veteran star along with other assets but their asking price is way too high at this time.
If they do not make a trade this is bound to cause turmoil in the locker room so if they want continuity as they approach next season, they need to define their roster fairly soon.
Where will their inside presence come from?
The Celtics are a talented group headlined by their two stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum is turning into a generational type talent with each year and Brown looks to progress into one of the best two-way players in the league. They also signed Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson so their backcourt is shaping well but their center position is a question mark so far.
Robert Williams III fills that role right now, and he displayed flashes of the center Boston hopes him to be. He is an athletic big with shot-blocking ability, but he still has not proven to solidify that spot for the upcoming years.
Boston also brought over Enes Kanter and Al Horford to help bolster their inside presence but those are two seasoned players well out of their prime nearing retirement. Their wing and backcourt production seem to be good enough to make a decent playoff run but Schroder, Richardson, and Smart are not always the most reliable options.
The Celtics do have two main stars but they are used to playing team basketball. Each piece in the rotation has to do its job well in order to snag a victory. Tatum and Brown will win games almost alone in the regular season, but when the true battles begin they need production from every spot.
If they can manufacture a consistent output from that center position, this is a dangerous team and one nobody will want to face come playoff time.
Will see the All-Star version of Pascal Siakem?
Siakem had a nice season last year if you base it solely on stats. He averaged 21 points, 4.5 assists, and 7 rebounds a game last year which is incredible considering he was a very late 1st round pick. In 2019, he averaged 23 points a game including an All-Star appearance and was looking to be the star to replace Kawhi Leonard.
His stats are good on paper, but many times throughout the season he would just disappear. Even his coach called him out to the media implying he needed to play better for them to win ball games. He is definitely not a sniper-type shooter so when he relies on his jump shot, he is not utilizing the best part of his offensive game and that’s what seemed to happen last season.
The Raptors will be an underrated team this year. I think they fly under the radar and when we look at the standings in April they will be right there fighting for seeding. Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Siakem, and 4th overall pick Scottie Barnes are all very talented players. You pair that with a great coach in Nick Nurse and you have a winning formula night in night out.
They’re great on the defensive end but they just need that one leader to set the standard every night. Many think it is Siakem since he is the most talented, but it could end up being a host of guys on this team. They have about 6-7 guys that can average 10-15 points a game but when the game clock approaches zero, they need Siakem to go get a bucket.