The 2019-20 NBA season is just around the corner. After an offseason chock-full of player movement, the title race appears as wide-open as it has been in years.
Over the coming weeks, we will examine one big question hanging over each team heading into the season. We’ll start today with the Atlantic Division, where the reigning NBA champions must adjust to life without the Finals MVP while three other playoff teams will feature overhauled starting fives.
Boston Celtics: Will frontcourt defense be their downfall?
The Celtics’ downgrade from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker may end up being addition by subtraction. Although Irving is the more talented player, his corrosive impact on Boston’s team chemistry last season shouldn’t be an issue with Walker, who’s gotten a jump-start on establishing a relationship with some of his teammates during their time with Team USA at the FIBA World Cup in China.
However, the loss of Al Horford could be far more problematic for Boston.
Although the Celtics pivoted well enough by signing Enes Kanter with their room exception, they’ll struggle to replace Horford’s understated impact. His box-score stats might not jump out, but he finished fifth among all centers in ESPN’s real plus-minus last season, whereas Kanter was 59th out of 71 qualified centers.
Kanter is a nightly 20-10 threat when given enough minutes, but he’ll become a glaring target on defense. He ranked 70th out of 71 centers in defensive real plus-minus, ahead of only Charlotte’s Willy Hernangomez. (And the New York Knicks were 4.4 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him off the court.)
The Celtics don’t have much frontcourt depth behind Kanter, either. Not counting the 7’7″ Tacko Fall, who signed an Exhibit 10 contract with Boston after going undrafted, Vincent Poirier and Robert Williams III are the only two other Celtics above 6’10”.
Teams with supersized lineups such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers may look to outmuscle the smaller Celtics down low. Boston’s inability to counter such bully-ball looks will go a long way toward determining how far it advances this season.
Brooklyn Nets: Which Kyrie Irving are they getting?
In terms of talent alone, Kyrie Irving is a clear upgrade over D’Angelo Russell.
“I think Kyrie is more capable (than Russell) of really getting into the seams and creating and finding people, and really taking things to the rim and scoring,” a Western Conference scout recently told SNY’s Ian Begley. ” … Again, nothing against Russell—he had a great season. He earned his keep and played really, really well. But I think Kyrie, again, he’s at the next level.”
However, the locker room wreckage Irving left in Boston last season begs the question of whether he and his new Brooklyn Nets teammates will quickly sour on one another.
On paper, the Nets’ supporting cast should fit Irving like a glove. Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie can absorb some of the ball-handling responsibility, allowing Irving to operate as a catch-and-shoot threat or a cutter. Meanwhile, Garrett Temple, Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler (upon his return from his suspension) will feast on open triples off Irving drive-and-kicks.
The Nets also ran a ton of pick-and-rolls last season, which is right in Irving’s wheelhouse. So long as he keeps his head on straight and doesn’t begin passive-aggressively bashing young teammates for a second straight season, the Nets could surprise prognosticators who peg them to win somewhere around 45 games.
New York Knicks: Are there enough minutes to go around?
After the New York Knicks struck out on their Plan A of Zion Williamson, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, they set out to collect power forwards like Pokemon.
That’s created a positional logjam for head coach David Fizdale to sort out.
In the frontcourt, he will somehow have to find enough minutes for Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson. Barring injuries, that also means the 6’9″ Kevin Knox—who the Knicks selected with the No. 9 overall pick in 2018—may wind up logging a grand majority of his minutes at the 3.
The Knicks’ backcourt is similarly clogged, although not to the same extent as their frontcourt.
Dennis Smith Jr., who New York acquired in the Kristaps Porzingis trade in February, will be competing for point guard minutes with free-agent signee Elfrid Payton. Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 pick from the 2017 draft, may wind up having to play largely shooting guard as a result, but he’ll be vying for playing time with 2019 No. 3 overall pick RJ Barrett and free-agent signee Wayne Ellington, not to mention returning prospects Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier.
The Knicks will presumably conduct a fire sale ahead of the trade deadline as they attempt to recoup assets for the players they signed to short-term deals. All of their signees (other than Randle) are on two-year contracts with either a second-year team option or a lightly guaranteed salary in 2020-21, which makes them perfect trade bait for teams searching for long-term salary-cap relief.
Until Dec. 15, though, Fizdale will have his hands full trying to find enough minutes for everyone in his rotation.
Philadelphia 76ers: How does Al Horford fit?
The Philadelphia 76ers spent the majority of their salary-cap space this summer on Al Horford, who signed a four-year, $109 million contract with $97 million in guarantees.
At first glance, such a deal looked questionable given the presence of two-time All-Star center Joel Embiid.
Throughout his 12-year career, Horford has logged more than four-fifths of his minutes at center, although he won’t have that opportunity in Philadelphia so long as Embiid remains healthy. While he has added a three-point shot to his offensive repertoire—he’s knocked down 37.1 percent of his 3.2 long-range attempts per game over the past four seasons—it’s fair to wonder whether he has the lateral quickness to keep up with younger opposing 4s.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown will thus have a juggling act with Horford’s minutes, particularly during the regular season.
Whenever Embiid is off the floor, Horford can slide over to the 5, giving the Sixers some much-needed fortification at the backup center spot. They often got clobbered whenever Embiid sat last season—they were a minus-10 in the three minutes he rested during their Game 7 loss to the Toronto Raptors during the Eastern Conference semifinals!—but spending nearly $25 million per year on a “just” backup center isn’t a prudent use of cap space.
With Horford and Josh Richardson now in the fold, the Sixers won’t start a player below 6’6″. That could pose enormous defensive challenges to smaller lineups, as the Sixers will attempt to smother opponents with size on both ends of the floor.
If Horford can adjust well to splitting his time between the 4 and the 5, the Sixers should cement themselves as legitimate Finals contenders. But if he struggles in that transition and thrives more at center than at power forward, Brown will have to figure out how best to divvy up minutes between him and Embiid while plugging the 4 gap in other ways.
Toronto Raptors: What’s life after Kawhi look like?
The Toronto Raptors are entering uncharted territory.
Not only are they fresh off winning their first-ever NBA championship, but they’re the first reigning champion to have immediately lost the Finals MVP in free agency.
When Kawhi Leonard decided to leave the Raptors and sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, he abruptly threw Toronto’s future into question. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all headed into the final year of their respective contracts, which could convince team president Masai Ujiri to conduct a fire sale heading into this year’s trade deadline.
For now, it appears as though Ujiri will allow the remaining Raptors to begin the season on their championship victory lap. He could start shopping Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka in a few months’ time, but a hot start sans Leonard might convince him to stand pat for one final playoff run with this core, too.
In Leonard’s absence, reigning Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam will have the opportunity to take another step forward and establish himself as a bona fide All-Star. Can he emerge as the No. 1 option on a championship-caliber team, or is he tailor-made for a No. 2 role alongside an elite wing such as Leonard?
The Raptors can only begin to plot a long-term path forward without Leonard by figuring out what they have in Siakam and youngsters such as OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Patrick McCaw.
You can find more NBA season preview content here: