The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, and the rest of the Atlantic Division have big questions to face next season.
While the Western Conference dominates the NBA as a whole, the Atlantic Division has an unmistakable presence in The Association. In the 2019 playoffs, four of the top six seeds in the Eastern Conference came from the Atlantic. The Milwaukee Bucks were the only team outside of the Atlantic to advance past the first round and they were bounced by the Toronto Raptors in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Although there is some instability around the division, the Atlantic should be strong again in 2019-20. While the world waits for the final dominoes to fall in free agency, here is one question facing all five teams in the Atlantic.
New York Knicks: Can David Fizdale’s squad develop an identity?
The New York Knicks lacked an identity in head coach David Fizdale‘s first year. Culture, growth, grind, and development were all common buzzwords in postgame press conferences last season. However, there was no real discernible quality or feature that defined the Knicks.
In year one, Fizdale is given a pass. The Kristaps Porzingis trade, Enes Kanter drama, injuries, and an overall lack of talent, made for a unique situation that really shouldn’t be held against Fiz. When there’s a revolving door of cast-offs in the rotation, it’s hard to develop any kind of continuity.
In year two, this must change. Fizdale comes from the hallowed halls of the Miami Heat where “culture” and “grit” are synonymous with the organization. Fizdale has the opportunity to establish that same kind of culture this season.
Newly-signed Julius Randle is a beast with a motor that doesn’t stop. Bobby Portis has…an edge to him that shouldn’t be overlooked. Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier entered the league with gigantic chips on their shoulder. Rookie RJ Barrett has fully embraced the challenge of New York City.
The players are a collection of unique individual personalities, but it’s up to Fizdale to mold them into one cohesive unit. No one should expect the Knicks to compete for the playoffs. But a 30-win team with an identity would be a huge step forward for the organization.
Brooklyn Nets: Where is Caris LeVert’s ceiling?
But the key to those title hopes might rest on Caris LeVert‘s shoulders. Before D’Angelo Russell‘s rise to his first All-Star Game, the shifty LeVert appeared to be the likeliest Net to make the leap to stardom. However, a gruesome injury nixed any chance LeVert had to be an All-Star and nearly cost him his entire season.
Despite struggling upon his return in February, LeVert rounded into form in Brooklyn’s first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers. The wing averaged 21.0 points on 49% shooting from the floor and 46% from deep.
He’s a 33% shooter from beyond the arc for his career and it remains his most glaring weakness. Moreover, he only shot 27.3% on catch-and-shoot threes last season.
If LeVert can improve on his shooting and play at an All-Star level, the Nets are dangerous in the Eastern Conference this season. Brooklyn would be adding a healthy Durant back to a team with two All-Stars in the backcourt in 2020-21. For some reason, that sounds familiar?
Boston Celtics: Can Brad Stevens rediscover his magic?
Brad Stevens is a fantastic head coach and definitely deserves to be considered among the best in the league. However, his star shone too bright for a while and there were even tens of thousands of people taking to Twitter to say that they would take Stevens over Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Celtics advanced to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals and came within minutes of taking down LeBron James without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Stevens cult was strong—until the 2018-19 season arrived.
There were chemistry issues, some of the young players stagnated, Hayward was a shell of himself, and Stevens couldn’t seem to corral Irving. The Celtics flamed out in the second round, lost Irving and Horford, and replaced them with Kemba Walker and not much else.
The biggest question facing Boston is whether or not Stevens can bring a plucky squad to new heights like he did in the 2018 playoffs. Can he recapture some of that magic that had folks legitimately arguing that Stevens is more valuable than the Greek Freak?
Walker has been living in exile in Charlotte for his entire career and he could be a perfect fit in Beantown. Only time will tell and the pressure is all on Stevens.
Toronto Raptors: Is Pascal Siakam going to make another leap?
Let’s leave Kawhi Leonard out of this because as of Wednesday night, he still hasn’t signed anywhere. Regardless of his decision, Pascal Siakam’s progression is the biggest question facing Toronto. He was the league’s Most Improved Player last season and dropped 32 points on 14-for-17 from the floor in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Clearly, Siakam is a budding star, but can he be the lead dog on a contender? His offensive game showed tremendous growth last season, but is he poised for another leap forward? If Kawhi decides to take his talents out west, Raptors fans will find out.
However, if Kawhi re-signs with Toronto and Siakam takes that next leap towards All-Star Games and All-NBA selections, the Raptors could stake a long-term claim on the real estate LeBron James left in the East.
Philadelphia 76ers: Is Ben Simmons worth the money?
Well, he better be. The 76ers are heavily investing in Ben Simmons. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Simmons’ five-year maximum extension is worth close to $170 million. However, he has only taken 17 three-pointers in his career and his jumper continues to limit his game.
Moreover, the Sixers facilitated a sign-and-trade to send Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat. He was the late-game closer for Philly when it mattered in the playoffs. During many of those situations, Simmons was relegated to the dunker spot and his impact on the offense was minimal.
There’s no doubting Simmons’ ability. He’s an All-Star and one of the best facilitators in the game. The Aussie can run the transition break as well as anyone in the NBA. But he hasn’t developed into the type of player who can command the ball in late-game situations and score a bucket when his team needs it most.
Even if he can only develop the slightest threat of a jump shot, it will open up his game in ways we haven’t seen before. That is the most obvious way that Simmons can live up to his contract. For $170 million, he can’t be an afterthought in the short corner when the game is on the line.