• Alec Liebsch

Burning Questions: Atlantic Division

It’s crazy to think the 2020-21 season is right around the corner. Rosters are mostly set as the dust settles in free agency, and the league just released its schedule for the first half of the season.

With the new season comes a flurry of new stories to be written. Star power didn’t change hands as drastically this offseason as it did last, but plenty of teams reshaped themselves in preparation for the new year. They all have questions that need to be answered, either early in the season or at some point in their playoff pursuits.

So to kick off the “Burning Questions” series, let’s start with the Atlantic Division.

Brooklyn Nets: How does the new Kevin Durant look?

Brooklyn’s new superstar will have a lot on his plate this season. Because he and Kyrie Irving signed on last summer, the franchise has championship expectations this year, and the front office built the roster around them accordingly.

Their playoff viability is directly correlated with Durant's health. He’s coming off an Achilles injury that few players recover 100% from. Burst and lateral quickness tend to decrease after that kind of damage. He will have a tougher time getting separation than before. His defense will especially weaken, which is a concern for a Nets team low on wing defenders.

Though if anyone can weather an injury like that, Durant has the skills to do so. His game was never heavily dependent on athleticism, more so on height, length and skill. He’ll still be able to get his own shot against most mortals with ease. The bigger concern is how he’ll do against the elites.

Boston Celtics: Can Kemba Walker stay healthy?

The early answer to this is “no,” as Walker will miss the first month of the season with a knee issue. More important is his health at the end of the season, when the Celtics won’t again get a four-month break to rest before the playoffs. Walker’s knee bothered him even during that two-month burst in the Orlando Bubble, and it’s easy to see it nagging him again next summer.

The most radical of fans would argue they’re better off without him in the playoffs. Disregarding the physical setbacks, Walker often looked lost intellectually on defense and needed a lot of help from fellow Celtics. His offensive fit is clean and potent, but a banged up Walker is even more of a red flag on the other end.

New York Knicks: Is this a viable business model?

New York’s front office has done everything it can to preserve its cap space for next offseason, when a loaded cast of free agents can hit the open market. Several signings over the last two offseasons have been solid veterans on short-term deals, with only rookie contracts and team options on the books past this season.

This plan is risky and unfounded. The Knicks’ young core is barely a core at all, with only Mitchell Robinson proving to be a plus contributor of anyone on the roster younger than Julius Randle. But all it takes is one or two high-profile players to like what they see, and the plan is justified. That’s what this season is about for New York.

Philadelphia 76ers: Are Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons enough?

Philly has been a bit of a pendulum the last few seasons. The first season of Embiid and Simmons was dominant in the regular season, with shooters around them to make their lives easier. The next season was a consolidation of role players for star talent, which got them within a hair’s length of the conference finals. But the most recent version of the Sixers was even more of a lean-in to talent over fit, ignoring what made Embiid and Simmons so good in the first place.

Dary Morey has swung the pendulum back the other way. In two draft night moves, the Sixers’ new lead executive swapped Al Horford and Josh Richardson for Danny Green and Seth Curry. These two will remind Sixers fans of Robert Covington and J.J. Redick, two above-average shooters (the latter elite) who know their roles next to superstars.

But with a deviation from talent comes more pressure on the top two. Embiid and Simmons were manhandled in their first postseason by the Celtics, and there may be a legitimate ceiling to them as a pair on the biggest stage. The post-up is effective in the right situation, especially for Embiid, but how does he get that setup when his lead ballhandler isn’t a threat to shoot outside of 5 feet? Morey has made it clear that this season is about those two; we’ll see if they’re enough.

Toronto Raptors: Can internal improvements outweigh free agent departures (again)?

For the second straight offseason, the Raptors lost two important members of their core. In 2019 Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green darted for Los Angeles, and this season Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol did the same. Aron Baynes is a nice solution to the Gasol hole, but Ibaka wasn’t directly replaced in free agency.

We’ve seen this story before; Toronto still got the 2 seed last season despite losing Leonard, the Finals MVP, and Green, a valuable starter, while not bringing in any direct replacements for either. Developments from homegrown Raptors were enough to patch those holes in the regular season, as Toronto finished with the third-best record and the second-best defense.

One move that indicates Toronto’s confidence in its own talent is Chris Boucher, who was re-signed for two years and $13.5 million. His electric defense and developing 3-ball make him a candidate to directly replace Ibaka, at least functionally. Another leap from Pascal Siakam would be nice too, as Toronto is still lacking a legitimate primary scoring option.