The NBA season is approaching quickly, and we still have no idea if J.R. Smith is wearing a shirt (or if the Cavaliers are actually going to sign him). With the games that matter around the corner, it’s time to answer some burning questions about the 2016–17 season. We’re going to focus on the Eastern Conference here, but be sure to check out our burning questions for the West as well.
Will the Cavaliers make a big move?
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Cleveland spent a lot of money to appease LeBron and keep its roster together last season, and the Cavs’ massive luxury tax bill paid off in one of the greatest Finals victories in NBA history. While the Cavaliers will always be favorites to win the East with LeBron, they were (extremely low whisper) slightly lucky to win the Finals against the 73-win Warriors, and Golden State is now much better with the addition of Kevin Durant. Cleveland couldn’t exactly make a corresponding move in the summer, so will they try during the season? The Finals win obscured how much of a circus Cleveland’s regular season was, when LeBron openly subtweeted Kevin Love, who rode the bench for many fourth quarters.
The Cavs could have some struggles again this year, particularly amid complacency and LeBron’s general disregard for the regular season. My gut tells me Love is going to find himself in trade rumors again this season, and Cleveland should heavily consider moving him for multiple players who improve the flexibility and depth of the roster. Love’s late defensive stand against Stephen Curry aside, he wasn’t a huge difference maker during the Finals. Attacking Golden State with depth could ultimately be the Cavs’ best chance at a repeat. (Having LeBron helps as well, of course.)
After two straight seasons in the second round of the playoffs, Washington seemed primed for a 50-win season and a chance to challenge Cleveland in the East finals. Instead, the Wizards imploded last year, missing the playoffs altogether and failing to improve on their record for the first time in four years. On paper, the Wiz have a solid starting five. In practice, John Wall and Bradley Beal don’t mesh well together, and the play from their forwards is too inconsistent. Scott Brooks was brought in to right the ship this off-season, and it’s high time for Washington to take advantage of the weak Eastern conference. The Hawks, Heat and Hornets will all likely take a step back this season, which opens up room for the Wizards to challenge for a playoff spot in the top half of the conference.
If Washington is in a dogfight for the playoffs again, it could be time for a shakeup. The most obvious candidate to be moved is Beal, who was signed to a max deal this summer. Beal is a risk because of his injuries, and he’s far from a proven franchise pillar, but a star-hungry organization may gamble on Beal if it’s not confident in luring free agents. With Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky waiting in the wings, a Beal trade is not out of the question if the Wizards stumble out of the gate.
How will the Hawks incorporate Dwight Howard?
The Hawks essentially swapped Al Horford with Dwight Howard this summer after Horford bolted for the Celtics. Atlanta also embraced its future at point guard, jettisoning Jeff Teague to the Pacers and handing off starting duties to Dennis Schroder. Schroder will want to run, and he’ll want to be involved in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, which creates an interesting test for Howard. The athletic center has demanded post-ups in every stop of his career, even when statistics show Howard is best utilized as a devastating roll man. Is this the year Howard finally embraces that aspect of his game? Atlanta would probably rather have Horford, but the Hawks needed a shakeup this off-season after back-to-back losses to the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Mike Budenholzer deserves credit for creating a mini-Spurs East, but that team peaked, and a committed Howard could possibly be the juice the Hawks need for a different playoff outcome.
In addition to Howard, though, Paul Millsap still deserves a big role for the Hawks. Hearing Millsap pop up in trade rumors around the draft was quite confusing. The versatile forward makes a lot of sense next to Howard due to his shooting ability. If Atlanta’s frontcourt can find the right harmony, the Hawks again will be difficult to beat.
Boston won 48 games last season, and added Horford while keeping together the most important cogs of its young core. The Celtics should be the No. 2 team in the East this season, and a conference final matchup with Cleveland is on the horizon. Boston has struggled in the playoffs in each of its last two trips, and this year the Celtics must also battle the expectations of being the team with the best chance to dethrone LeBron.
Fortunately, Boston’s roster is wholly unafraid, and Brad Stevens has proven he can wring every last drop of production from whoever’s on the floor. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Celtics made the Finals, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if they lost in the second round. Talent always outweighs experience, but there’s something to be said about how untested the Celtics are in the postseason. Horford has been in a few battles, but we haven’t really seen how anyone else on the roster will perform when they are expected to win as opposed to accomplished just for making the playoffs. The Celtics are going to be great this season, but they may be one more playoff heartbreak away from true Finals contention.