The Question Every Eastern Conference Team Needs Answered This Preseason

Preseason is when teams want to work through mistakes and identify the most pressing issues. Camps have now given way to games, which offer a different level of looking at a team’s identity. It would be asking for the impossible to have every problem identified, let alone remedied, by the end of October; the best-case scenario is to simply not carry too many from the start into the season. What should every team be asking itself during the preseason? We’ve got you covered. Today, we look at the Eastern Conference.

NEW YORK: The age-old question about the Knicks roster won’t be a question readily answered this preseason, for one large reason: The Knicks are holding out their oldest players from practicing daily (Rasheed Wallace has only been doing conditioning work, with boxing or bike drills). It’s very hard to develop continuity that way, but there are larger questions about those who can play right now, and they center on Carmelo Anthony. Will he see time at power forward, against his wishes? Anthony had a PER of 29.5 at power forward (where he played 19 percent of his minutes), compared with 17.4 at small forward. He averaged 39 points there per 48 minutes, compared with 29 at the three, and shot better, too. He says he doesn’t want to do it, though. Mike Woodson should show him those stats this preseason to persuade his star he’s better off with more minutes as the four man.

BROOKLYN: There are nine new players on this roster, from Joe Johnson to Andray Blatche. It’s simple, yet prudent, to wonder how quickly this team will find itself in synch rather than a nice group of individuals bundled together by GM Billy King. There is so much hype around the guards of MarShon Brooks, Deron Williams and Johnson (even Gerald Wallace, to an extent) it’s easy to forget that the Nets’ depth down low is limited to reclamation project Blatche, good rebounder but middling defender Kris Humphries, untested Mirza Teletovic, and Brook Lopez. None jump out as terribly stable (Lopez has foot concerns) with post defense.

BOSTON: Does Jason Terry play at shooting guard in the role Ray Allen created, like a stand-in actor, or will he turn the two into a more dynamic role for the Celtics? His history would suggest more of the former. Last season in Dallas, 90 percent of Terry’s shots were on jumpers — an even more uneven percentage than Allen, whose shot selection was 85 percent jumpers. There are players who can be more dynamic at the two than Terry in Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee, to be sure, but if Terry sticks to his game defenses can use their game plans against Allen as their de facto plans for Terry by just cut-and-pasting. Maybe Doc Rivers will employ other players to create to-the-hoop scoring and leave Terry to his time-tested jump shot, but the Celtics will be better off if the old-dog shooting guard can add a few new tricks.

TORONTO: We’ve all heard the grief given to David Kahn for taking point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn in the same draft, but don’t forget that the Raptors drafted the same exact player just three years apart. Terrence Ross and DeMar DeRozan are the same exact guy, comfortable to pull-up with a jumper or cut to the rim anytime, while less dependable to guard and even worse if asked to rebound. (And this came after a period where they drafted exclusively forwards in Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, Rafael Araujo, Charlie Villanueva and Ed Davis, to name a few) So the obvious goal for Dwane Casey should be to find a way to have DeRozan and Ross co-exist on the court together and keep them both productive.

PHILADELPHIA: The leadership void hasn’t been filled in Philly, not that the departures of Lou Williams to Atlanta and Andre Iguodala to Denver helped. A team lauded nationally and vilified locally last season for its democratic approach to sharing the load — the benefits of a “different leading scorer every night” mentality fall short of the negatives of not having a clear player to turn to in the stretch — has the same existential problem. Andrew Bynum should fill that role in time because of his temperament and talent but who takes the reins before he comes back healthy?

CHICAGO: Without Derrick Rose did anyone expect the Bulls to run as much as they did in their first preseason game? Chicago had 32 fast-break points. The “first preseason game” part of that sentence can’t be stressed enough, because this is very, very early to be making analytical questions. And yet, maybe this signals a small effort by Tom Thibodeau to free up the Bulls’ half-court style even before he gets the all-world Rose back, who deserves mention with Ty Lawson as one of the fastest players in the NBA. Last year’s Bulls were 13th in the NBA in fast-break points but were tied for 25th by John Hollinger in pace.

MILWAUKEE: Brandon Jennings falls into much the same category as a DeMar DeRozan: When does promise and freakish athleticism turn into wins? Jennings has said that during the offseason he’s incorporated Steve Nash‘s floater into his arsenal, a sort-of mid-range game for his style of play that will bridge his cuts to the rim and three-point heaves. That’s all well and good, but how about he focus on when he fires up those shots instead. Last season 48 percent of his shots were taken in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. While I concede he shot an efficient field-goal percentage of 51 percent there — 10 points higher than his regular EFG% — it also allows the defense to put less effort into guarding Milwaukee’s possession. Jennings needs to make defenses work longer to stop him.

INDIANA: Does Roy Hibbert become the player worthy of such an offseason bidding war? Admittedly there isn’t much he can show an answer for this during the next three weeks, but it’s the fastest way the Pacers either get better or worse this season. It’s hard to quantify playing with anger, but Hibbert’s tempo and kill-them-all attitude against the Heat last season was a 7-foot reason why the Pacers pushed Miami to the brink. There are two sides of Hibbert, though, with the other side docile enough that it pushed Charles Barkley to question last May whether we’d all wonder in the future how Hibbert was ever an All-Star. Ouch. Who shows up?

CLEVELAND: Barring a disaster, Kyrie Irving should stay healthy for all of preseason. That may sound like setting the bar extremely low, but Irving has missed, as the Beacon-Journal noted, 62 of his teams’ 103 games since he enrolled at Duke. No, what should be of most interest to Cavs fans is whether No. 4 pick Dion Waiters‘ Summer League performance was the whole story or an aberration. Remember, he didn’t do any workouts in the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft, and that lack of playing showed in the summer when his jumper’s bricks would have made a mason jealous. Here’s why it should be very concerning already, however: Byron Scott yanked Waiters from the team’s second exhibition because of a “lack of focus” after going 1-of-7 with four turnovers. Forgetting plays is one thing right now, but messing up a play out of a timeout — after Scott diagrammed it in front of Waiters — is inexcusable, even this early.

DETROIT: PER is meant to be objective but it doesn’t always tell the whole story about a player or position. Yet it says something about the point guard spot for last year’s Pistons team, which saw its Net PER (the Pistons’ PG PER against its opponents’) as its worst among any position group, at -5.1. Brandon Knight should use the time this preseason to not only develop chemistry with Andre Drummond but also turn his relationship with Rodney Stuckey from one of indecision about whose team this is, to one with a clear demarcation. Greg Monroe is a foundational piece in the post, but the Pistons need to get their backcourt in better synch.

MIAMI: How often Miami shows its small-ball lineup in the preseason, especially with Chris Bosh becoming more comfortable in a position he swore to never play again — center — will be the thing to watch. Well, that and LeBron James‘ dunks. This team is extremely good again and only has more confidence than ever. With Dwyane Wade working himself into game shape over the course of the next three weeks, there isn’t much concern in Miami.

ORLANDO: In the bigger picture this team carries all the signs of trying to become Oklahoma City East. GM Rob Hennigan has expressed the desire to emulate his former boss, Sam Presti, but building through the draft won’t begin again until next June. In the short-term, the central question is how will the Magic play without a back-to-the-basket obligation of Dwight Howard? Losing the team’s support beam in Howard makes the team structurally unsound in the middle, but new coach Jacque Vaughn‘s flexible style of play could seem the team from imploding for a while. It will be intriguing to see if this team trends towards the running game played from the outside in. Then again, maybe this is just arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it careens into a top-five pick in the 2013 Draft.

ATLANTA: There is a three-headed point guard dilemma coach Larry Drew faces, one preseason minutes could help smooth out. Who gets the majority of minutes at point guard between Jeff Teague, Lou Williams and Devin Harris? Williams split his time so evenly, and with such even results, between point and shooting guards last season in Philly that the difference is negligible. We’ve all been waiting for Teague to re-emerge after his devastating 2011 playoff series against Chicago, but the time passed where this job is his to hold. Harris would like a say in that and a chance to prove his 11.3 points and 5.0 assists per game last season — his worst averages since 2006-07 — are outliers. One thing that helps the case of all three is Drew’s desire to run more this season, which could open up more playing time for faster guards with fresher legs.

WASHINGTON: This preseason really is about just finishing healthy in Washington. With Nene and John Wall out with injuries, it would be nice to see how rookie Bradley Beal deals with a modicum of pressure to lead in the interim. However, the team just needs to begin this year as healthy as possible in the post-Arenas Era era (Andray Blatche was the last holdover).

CHARLOTTE: This has always been a rookie’s team to lead: From Gerald Henderson to Adam Morrison to Kemba Walker and now Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the promise and pressure always lies in the team’s youngest players. Which is fine, except that the leadership perpetually moves to the next rookie every season instead of staying with one as he matures. It always goes to the most talented, yet least experienced, guy on the roster. Kidd-Gilchrist is insanely athletic but do you give the future over to a 19-year-old (side question: Is this the time a Michael Jordan draft pick succeeds?)? Instead, this should be Walker’s team to run early this season, and new coach Mike Dunlap — a lifelong college coach who coached against Walker in the Big East two seasons ago — should be the perfect coach to appreciate Walker’s leadership capability in the pros. If it can shield MKG from the pressure of leading from Day One, it can only be a good thing.

What do you think?

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