1 Question Every Team in NBA’s Atlantic Division Must Answer By the End of 2017-18
NBA championship odds come courtesy of Bovada and are accurate as of Tuesday, March 27. While teams that have been officially eliminated from playoff contention won’t have line changes, be sure to double-check the numbers on postseason hopefuls before placing a wager, as they will shift with each passing game.
Boston Celtics (+1200): Are They Playing For Now Or Later?
This seems like a loaded question. The Boston Celtics are on track to snag the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed. Of course they’re playing for now.
Except, it’s not that simple.
Kyrie Irving just underwent what the team is deeming a minor procedure to remove some wire from the left knee he injured during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA Finals run in 2014-15. He’s expected to miss the next three to six weeks, which could take Boston through the first round of the playoffs.
Though the hope is he’ll be able return, the Celtics must decide whether it’s worth pushing his timeline. Even if they’re not rushing him back, there will be risk caked into a player returning mid-stream, halfway through a postseason series. He might not be himself. He might try to do too much soon and re-injure himself. He might actually hurt the team’s chemistry as they try letting him work through the rust.
With Gordon Hayward—and, now, Daniel Theis—also done for the year, the Celtics have to decide whether they’re intent on going anywhere this season. The same methodology applies to Marcus Smart’s return from a hand injury.
Should they be pushing their players to return, because they think they’ll have a viable shot at coming out of the Eastern Conference? Or should they roll forward as constituted, preserving their players for next year’s run by slow-playing their progress, even if it means they do not play again this season?
Brooklyn Nets (Off): Does A Spencer Dinwiddie-D’Angelo Russell Backcourt Work?
D’Angelo Russell didn’t do the Brooklyn Nets any favors by spending so much time on the sidelines earlier in the season. It not only hindered their ability to evaluate him against the big picture after trading for him over the summer, but it limited the amount of spin he received with Spencer Dinwiddie, the other standout prospect in the backcourt.
Both players are under contract in 2018-19—Dinwiddie’s salary is non-guaranteed—so this isn’t the end of the world. But a healthy Jeremy Lin will eat into the backcourt roation’s minutes next year, and the Nets don’t have much time beyond that to asses the Russell-Dinwiddie marriage.
They’re both ticketed for free agency in 2019, so a verdict on their future will preferably be rendered before next February, since Brooklyn will want to trade whomever it doesn’t deem a part of the future. And right now, the Nets don’t have a large enough sample size at their disposal to render that verdict.
Dinwiddie and Russell have barely logged 300 minutes together on the year, during which time the Nets are vomiting a disastrous 119.2 points per 100 possessions and notching a minus-10.6 net rating. They know the duo can work offensively. Both can fire off the catch, and both should be able to make timely cuts. They can play off one another. That’s not the concern.
Defense is a different story. Dinwiddie has the size to defend both guard positions and even some truer wings. Russell does as well, but he’s one of the league’s least valuable defenders. If he doesn’t make a leap on that side of the floor and Dinwiddie is unable to carry him, Brooklyn may need to move on from at least one of them.
New York Knicks (Off): What Position Does Frank Ntilikina Play?
Maybe we should put an emphasis on play here.
The New York Knicks have not done a bang-up job of developing their rookie guard. Frank Ntilikina spent the first part of the season losing minutes to Jarrett Jack. Now, with the Knicks favoring youth, he’s ceding status to Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek has carved out a little extra playing time by using him at the 2, but even that exposure has dwindled following the return of veteran Courtney Lee. That’s inexcusable.
It’s fine that the Knicks want to test out Ntilikina somewhere other than point guard. He’s 6’5″, with the wingspan to defend most 2s and even some 3s. They can roll out some funky small-ball lineups that don’t mess up much defensively. Ntilikina, after all, is already one of the NBA’s most suffocating on-ball defenders.
But that role designation needs to come soon. The Knicks are slated to fall somewhere between sixth and eighth in the draft lottery. That’s prime Trae Young and Collin Sexton territory. But both inbound prospects are floor generals. It doesn’t make sense to draft one of them unless they view Ntilikina as a full-time 2.
And we cannot say for sure whether they view him as such, because they’re not playing him like they mean it—which is a damn shame. Kristaps Porzingis is out for the rest of the year with a torn left ACL. He isn’t expected to play again until Christmas(ish). Now is the time for the Knicks to experiment and evaluate. They’re doing both Ntilikina and themselves a disservice by not increasing his workload at both guard spots to see where he fits in best.
Philadelphia 76ers (+10000) Is Markelle Fultz Ready To Carry A Serious Workload?
Rookie Markelle Fultz surprised just about everyone when, after missing 58 consecutive games, he opted to return during a Monday night date with the Denver Nuggets. He surprised everyone even further by playing extremely well, dropping 10 points and eight assists while making a few nice defensive plays.
While he and the Philadelphia 76ers should bask in what is both a moral and actual victory, the team must ask itself: Will he be ready for a heavier workload in the playoffs?
On the surface, Fultz provides the Sixers with everything they need: another shot creator who can make plays off the bounce and space the floor without compromising their defense-first identity.
Everything else about this squad is virtually set. They have a pair of stars in Joel Embiid and rookie Ben Simmons. They’re an elite defensive unit. Simmons is leading effective lineups without Embiid. Robert Covington and J.J. Redick give them just enough three-point shooting. The bench is noticeably deeper following the additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.
Really, if you could guarantee that Fultz would be able to run the offense when one of Embiid or Simmons is off the floor, the Sixers would be sitting pretty. It would be easy to imagine them making the Eastern Conference Finals.
But they don’t know if this rookie, all of 19 with minimal game experience, is that much of a sure thing. And without being guaranteed anything, they must decide whether they’ll willing to let him work through his growing pains, even if it costs them postseason positioning or, eventually, a ticket out of the first round.
Toronto Raptors (+2200): Who Is Their LeBron James Stopper?
This is another loaded question. The Toronto Raptors won’t face the Cleveland Cavaliers in every remaining regular season game. They have only one game left against the reigning Eastern Conference champs in April. It will be difficult to determine who their primary LeBron James defender is over such a small sample.
Still, if we’re to assume the first-place Raptors are an Eastern Conference Finals lock, we must then assume they’ll be squaring off against the Cavaliers. And that means they’ll have to go through LeBron to reach the NBA Finals. And he’s historically killed them in the playoffs. Hell, he’s killed them during the regular season.
Stopping him altogether is out of the question. This isn’t 2009. It isn’t even 2011. Defenses won’t get him by going under screens and daring him to shoot. He makes jumpers now. The Raptors have to cobble together to defense-by-committee structure or throw one of their guys to the wolves and hope he kind of, sort of survives in a one-on-one situation.
OG Anunoby is the obvious answer. He’s the Raptors’ switchiest defender, someone who bridges the gap between bigs and wings. He’s also a rookie who has recently hit a wall. LeBron could end up eating him for breakfast during a potential mid-May showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Raptors don’t have many options after him. Should they use the undersized Norman Powell? The not-so-switchy Serge Ibaka? The half-switchy Pascal Siakam? Does it make more sense to roll out Ibaka and Siakam together, so the Raptors are, hypothetically speaking, equipped to tackle a Kevin Love-LeBron frontcourt?
Laugh at all this if you want, but make no mistake: The Raptors’ response to this question will most likely determine which team represents the Easts in the NBA Finals.
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