October 7, 2019, 8:54 pm
The preseason is a sign of relief for most basketball fans. It’s not quite the real deal but it’s miles away from the sloppy, admittedly fun, anarchy of Summer League. Though some teams are getting their feet wet against inferior international competition, and with swaths of players that won’t see the court once the games start to count, preseason is the basketball world’s version of the leaves turning.
Fun times are ahead, and this exhibition season gives folks a glimpse at drawing meaningful conclusions – the UDFA who scores 25 points might not end up playing outside of garbage time but fans will be able to sink their teeth into rotations, lineups and find out who was lying about reworking their jump shot in the summer.
The Eastern Conference especially finds itself in a state of flux. LeBron James’ departure swung the door wide open, with Masai Ujiri’s Raptors taking some bold steps to be the first team through. Now that Kawhi Leonard is gone, the Celtics’ presumed title core has been rejiggered and the Sixers’ Big 4 approach has been altered, it’s shaping up like a free-for-all with a widening group of potential contenders.
We’ll run through the West later in the week, but for now here are some Eastern Conference stories to watch out for in the preseason.
How NBA-ready is Bruno Fernando?
The Hawks look to have some long-term answers at four of the five spots on the floor, with the lone exception coming at center. Alex Len showed up as a vastly improved shooter last season and will enter this year as the starter, but that’s a stopgap solution for a team hoping to ride its young core to contention in the near-ish future.
Enter Bruno Fernando, who should immediately fit in as a rim-runner and rebounder. His pivotal role in Maryland’s offense should serve him well even if he won’t be tasked with much playmaking this season, and the question is whether Fernando’s limited offensive game can hold up in extended minutes. Defensively he’ll be able to provide rim protection, but lateral quickness could be an issue and teams will surely target him in space.
If Fernando looks the part of a ready-made NBA center, he could quickly flip the split of playing time so the Hawks can get a better look at how their long-term pieces fit together. Don’t expect the Hawks to force the issue, but they would undoubtedly be happy if Fernando developed quickly.
Offense or defense at center?
When the Celtics signed Enes Kanter, it was assumed that he would slot right in as the team’s starter, replacing Aron Baynes and Al Horford. While Kanter is coming off a solid playoff run after rotting away on the bench in New York, his game does come with extensive defensive deficiencies. Depending on how Brad Stevens wants his team to look, it’s possible that we see one of the other candidates assert themselves as a viable option.
Robert Williams, who started the team’s first preseason contest, is the likely frontrunner of the non-Kanter field. While he fills an extremely narrow lane on offense, he would give the Celtics a potentially elite rim protector and offers the most upside of anyone in the group. Should Stevens opt for a more intimidating defensive group, Williams is the easy call.
There’s also the notion that Kanter can be used as more of a matchup type, drawing the starts against burly centers while coming off the bench to dominate weaker opponents in other games. It’s not dissimilar to how the Raptors used Jonas Valanciunas or how the Bucks used to use Greg Monroe.
Perhaps Daniel Theis, whose versatile game can serve as a happy medium, will stand out. He’ll require fewer offensive touches than Kanter and offers the best spacing of all the options. Newcomer Vincent Poirier will also be competing for time. The Celtics lost a ton of production at the center spot this summer and Stevens now has the chance to remold the team with a distinct new identity. Which player he chooses, assuming nobody asserts themselves entirely as a result of their play, should be revealing.
Kenny Atkinson’s ‘good problem’ in the backcourt
The Nets have reached the mountaintop, or at least gone as high as you can without having played any games yet. They bottomed out but rebuilt the team in such a way that they could attract two superstar talents. Brooklyn has collected a number of quality players to complement its big pieces, and Kenny Atkinson’s deep rotations have helped develop a lot of players in meaningful situations.
The Nets have received quality play from D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert, among others, over the last few seasons. While the team gets credit for helping these players blossom, they’ve all been aided by some lucky breaks. Dinwiddie first broke onto the scene when Jeremy Lin got hurt and became a mainstay when Russell went down in 2017-18. Russell really broke out last season after LeVert went down, and LeVert returned to the lineup while Dinwiddie was sidelined.
While injuries will inevitably strike, Atkinson’s juggling task will only get tougher as each player continues to grow. With four starting-caliber guards, and the presence of Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs (and eventually Kevin Durant) soaking up minutes at small forward, the Nets will need to strike a careful balance to make sure everyone gets fed. Brooklyn’s rotation is always busy but we’ll be keeping a close eye on the playing time throughout the preseason.
Can Willy Hernangomez get it together?
The offensively gifted 25-year-old seems to be running out of chances. The Knicks punted him from the rotation despite a solid rookie campaign, and Hernangomez couldn’t gain any traction after being traded to Charlotte. The team couldn’t afford to deal with his shortcomings last season while they were trying to make the playoffs and convince Kemba Walker to stick around, but there’s really no excuse for Hernangomez to be an occasional DNP-CD this season.
The defense will always be problematic, but the setup is perfect for the Hornets to just grin and bear it. If Hernangomez can’t establish himself as the clear backup to the oft-injured Cody Zeller by beating out the oft-injured Bismack Biyombo, it might just be the final straw. There’s enough offensive skill to keep a rebuilding team interested, but eventually the rubber has to hit the road.
The Kris Dunn dilemma
Dunn was given the starting nod for Chicago’s preseason opener but the team’s actions point to a different long-term vision. They can pump up Tomas Satoransky and Shaq Harrison as guys who can play 1-3 as much as they’d like, but to play them anywhere other than point guard is a major disservice to both them and the team.
That said, Dunn could very well play his way back into the mix with a strong preseason. He’ll have limited opportunities with the Bulls mixing and matching their lineups to get a good look at all four PGs on the roster but it’s not out of the question that he outplays his counterparts. A trade still seems likely at some point but stranger things have happened and we’re likely to see a highly motivated version of Dunn, who went from potential franchise guard to potential DNP-CD in a hurry.
Garland & Sexton
The Cavs took a bit of a risk in drafting Darius Garland fifth overall after he was felled for the season by a torn meniscus in November. Doubly so considering they just took a point guard in the lottery, grabbing Collin Sexton last summer. How these two coexist will determine a lot about Cleveland’s future, and with both more inclined to be scorers we’ll be watching closely to see how things shake out.
Sexton struggled mightily with efficiency last season before a strong burst at the finish, and he still needs some work in terms of shot selection. Garland offers better range and is more of a dynamic scorer in general, but neither really fits a traditional playmaking mold. It can certainly work with the two splitting that load, but how they find a groove playing side by side is going to be the story of the preseason for the Cavs. Keep a close eye on how both players manage without the ball in their hands.
Christian Wood’s big break?
It’s been two seasons of Christian Wood throttling inferior competition, and even a big finish with the Pelicans couldn’t get him a guaranteed spot. It looks as though he’ll be competing with Joe Johnson for the final spot on Detroit’s roster. It’s an interesting battle in that the two competitors provide entirely different things, so Dwane Casey may already have a good idea of who the frontrunner is even if there’s nothing being said publicly.
There’s some dynamic talent at play, and Wood would seem to offer a bit more all-around upside than Thon Maker or Markieff Morris. If the Pistons, who are hoping to actually make noise in the playoffs, and Casey, who has historically had a hard time deviating from plans until his hand is forced, want the safe route, then Wood is going to be facing an uphill battle.
Myles Turner’s shooting
The Pacers are going a little old school with their frontcourt combo of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Most teams are riding with better shooting out of the power forward slots, but Turner and Sabonis are clearly Indiana’s two most talented big men and it’s well worth it to figure out how the pairing functions, and how they can thrive together long-term. There’s pretty clear evidence that Sabonis works best in the paint, so most of the adjusting figures to fall to Turner.
He’ll need to spend more time outside the arc, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him cutting in and out of the paint quickly to give Sabonis room to operate on offense. Turner is a .363 career deep shooter with notable progress in each year of his career, culminating in last season’s .388 mark. Expect him to easily eclipse last year’s career-high 2.6 3-point attempts per game and look out for where those attempts are coming – Turner shot .625 from the corners last season but only took 16 attempts. He took 179 of his threes above the break, hitting at a .369 clip.
Justise Winslow’s versatility, or lack thereof
Winslow entered the league as a do-it-all prospect who could switch across multiple positions, which sort of left him in no man’s land on a Miami roster that had a few similar players. Eventually, the question has to be asked: if you play multiple positions but never truly excel at any of them, are you really versatile after all?
Luckily, Winslow seemed to find his calling as the fill-in point guard when Goran Dragic was injured last season. It’s a position that he’s been vocal about playing going forward, except the Heat have been committed to Dragic as their PG for as long as he’s on the roster. That might be a little bit of lip service considering they tried to trade him this summer, but it’s unlikely that The Dragon would be shuttled aside right away. How those two split the role is going to have a big say in Miami’s results this year, and with expectations cranked up as a result of the Jimmy Butler acquisition, the Heat may face a tough decision.
Winslow has more of a future in Miami than the 33-year-old Dragic. How much are the Heat willing to sacrifice his development at a position where he finally looks comfortable?
Who fills the void in Malcolm Brogdon’s absence?
The Bucks predictably found success by stuffing the roster with shooters that can play off of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s elite penetration game. Though they’re still clearly one of the top teams in the East, Milwaukee may struggle to replace Malcolm Brogdon – the team’s fourth-leading assist man and a .408 career 3-point shooter.
Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver have been brought in but neither can fill the playmaking shoes, and the Bucks’ second units could have trouble with scoring without a clear leader and efficient perimeter scorer who can create his own shot. Perhaps Khris Middleton, who was frustrated by his new role at times last season, is asked to handle a lot of that load.
New York Knicks
The Knicks’ brass likes to talk a lot. It’s David Fizdale who said that Lance Thomas could be New York’s version of Draymond Green, after all, so you can excuse anyone who chooses to take any audio from MSG with a big grain of salt. Allegedly, the Knicks will have a competition for the point guard spot this season. Allegedly, Frank Ntilikina is part of it.
That’s pretty inconsistent with all the rumors surrounding Ntilikina’s future with the organization, but perhaps New York will bank on a strong World Cup performance creating enough confidence to get Frankie Smokes rolling out of the gates. Odds are that Ntilikina’s NBA career will be best-served by a move to another organization – the Knicks haven’t exercised their option on him yet, after all – but he just might be able to salvage things. New York was very quick to give up on a raw player with obvious defensive merit, and while that’s on brand for the Knicks, some quick proof of improvement could change their tune.
Al-Farouq Aminu’s role
It was a bit curious that the Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu this summer when they have Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac already in the fold, but it’s a move that made more sense after some marinating.
The Magic became a stifling defensive team last season, and Aminu has experience taking on the tough matchups in Portland. Aminu will also provide a little bit of a boost to a team that shot .321 from deep last year and can also chip in on the glass. He’ll help bolster a bench unit that wavered in terms of impact (aside from Terrence Ross) last season and can be elevated into a larger role if need be. Simply put, he’s the sort of defender and complementary contributor that Steve Clifford is likely to love.
His signing is a win-now move from a team that’s really buying into last year’s big step forward, and it’s going to be interesting to see if his steady play can take minutes from either Gordon or Isaac.
Josh Richardson’s offensive fit
Richardson is a nice get for Philadelphia, who acquired an ascendant two-way guard in exchange for sending Jimmy Butler to Miami. Over the course of his first four seasons with the Heat, Richardson rose through the pecking order and set a career-high in usage in each campaign. That figures to change in Philly, where he could be look at as the low man on the totem pole.
Although Richardson’s game and flighty efficiency might actually shine with a more limited set of responsibilities, it will be an adjustment for a player who has been on a linear progression as a primary offensive weapon. He’ll be counted on to stretch the floor and will be a major part of the elite defense that the Sixers have assembled (on paper), but we may be able to learn a bit about the team’s offensive plans for Richardson in the preseason. Teams with lots of overhaul tend to deploy their real rotation guys the most in the exhibition season so the Sixers might provide some insightful games.
The big lineup
The Raptors have a ton of changes to work through given their high-profile departures, but despite the huge vacancies at the two and three spots it’ll be how they deploy their three best forwards that merits watching. The combination of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam played 37 minutes together in the playoffs – after playing zero minutes in the regular season – to a 97.1 ORTG and a 101.5 DRTG, though the added size was crucial in keeping the Sixers off the glass in the postseason.
It would be wise for the Raptors to give Siakam as many minutes as possible at different positions to find the limits of his versatility and although Ibaka found great success as a full-time center, the Raptors are likely short on the shooting that can allow him to really shine as a dump-off or mid-range option on offense. Gasol’s game is malleable enough to fit with most players, especially if a climb in the pecking order eliminates the passivity that defined his worst playoff performances.
This is a team that will lean heavily on its defense this season. Getting their smartest defender, their best rim protector and most athletic player on the court at the same time is going to fit that vibe. At the very least it’s a lineup worth exploring further.
Davis Bertans, besides the shooting
It’s already established that Bertans is one of the league’s elite sharpshooters among big men. The Marcus Morris free agency flip-flop took Bertans from a great basketball program in San Antonio, but it sent him to a fantastic opportunity in Washington. It looks as though he’ll enter the season as a starter, and the big question is how well the rest of his game can hold up.
Although Bertans has developed nicely, it’s fair to say that there was a limit on his ceiling with the Spurs. The team was too good to tolerate potential growing pains, and they’ve had capable forwards in place for as long as he was on the roster. Washington isn’t expected to make much noise this season and it’s an environment where Bertans should be tested. The team will be able to let him play through mistakes and carry a heavier burden than he would’ve with the Spurs.
Though his bread-and-butter skill will keep Bertans in the league for a while, he’ll be afforded the chance to shed his reputation as a one-dimensional player. If he looks like a capable defender in the preseason, expect the expectations and excitement to quietly rachet up.