2024 Eastern Conference Playoffs: Each team’s biggest question heading into the playoffs

2024 Eastern Conference Playoffs: Each team’s biggest question heading into the playoffs

This article is part of a two-part series preview for the upcoming 2023-2024 NBA Playoffs.

With the 2023-2024 NBA Playoffs starting, all eyes will be on all teams competing for the championship as fans and players look on for a taste of postseason action. As eight playoff teams in each conference gear up for what promises to be an intense battle for the title, each team faces its own set of unique challenges. In this article, we take a closer look at the biggest question facing each Eastern Conference team heading into the playoffs, from injuries and roster changes to key matchups and strategic decisions.

Boston Celtics - Who’s stopping them?

The Boston Celtics have been the best team in the regular season as evidenced by their 64-18 record. They have also been one of the most dominant regular season teams of all time, having the third-highest net rating in NBA history (11.8) which would rank just behind the 1996 and 1997 Chicago Bulls. If it were of any significance, those Bulls teams had 72-10 and 69-13 records and won it all in both years.

It’s all written on the wall – the Celtics are in title or bust mode, which even just a conference finals appearance would probably be marked as a disappointment. Considering how dominant they have been throughout the season, a Finals appearance would be the minimum achievement.

This team is built almost as completely as they could ever be — offense, defense, bench, two stars that lift each other’s game up, roster construction of players that complement them, and even the fans that are some of the most passionate in the league. These are things that are all you could ask for in a championship team, and with that being said – the pressure is on for Boston.

A big possible answer to that question is whether the Celtics would be the only ones who’ll stop themselves from achieving and realizing their full potential – and there’s only one way to find out. 

The playoffs are a different story and looking at what we’ve seen over the years, the Celtics have tendencies to underperform in the playoffs. With a new supporting cast featuring 2021 champ Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, a question lingers on the team: will it be different this time around?

They have had a history of flaming out in the past, and whether or not that continues this season remains to be seen. Time is the ultimate truth teller, and these Celtics hope to exercise their playoff demons when the time comes and their opportunities present themselves.

Will they be able to capitalize on a dominant regular season and take on the task at hand once and for all? They certainly hope with all the pieces they have now, they have enough to close it out and take it all the way and finish the job this time around to end the allegations against them once and for all.

New York Knicks - How far will they go without Julius Randle?

As we all know by now, health is the biggest factor in the playoffs. You always want to be complete and your best players to be healthy and ready to go when it matters most.

Unfortunately, this will not be the case for the New York Knicks this season, after losing all-star Julius Randle to a season-ending surgery to his injury.

Randle has been the Knicks’ best player for the past 3 seasons (before Brunson’s ascension to King Knick this year). He brings that size and physicality along with that sneaky speed at the 4. On offense, Randle is a secondary creator and playmaker who can make plays for himself and his teammates. His improving three-point shot is now a weapon for teams not to sag off of him as much which could only help the Knicks in the playoffs.

Simply put, Randle is a matchup problem against traditional power forwards. Without him, the Knicks would not be able to tap on another gear that would only be possible with Randle out there on the floor.

Now, all eyes will be on Jalen Brunson as he tries to carry New York all by himself. It will be expected to see all possible defensive schemes thrown against him to try and contain the all-NBA caliber player in this season that he is.

Milwaukee Bucks - Can they hold the fort without Giannis? 

The hits just keep on coming for the Bucks. After starting the season 30-13, they fired their head coach Adrian Griffin, and replaced him with Doc Rivers. They’ve had their fair share of struggles with Rivers, losing to lottery teams like the Wizards, Grizzlies, and Raptors in one stretch, and they’ve finished only a disappointing 19-20 the rest of the way to end the season. 

Just recently, they received brutal news that superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo will miss the beginning of their series against the Indiana Pacers after injuring his left calf with three games left in the regular season. The upstart and young Pacers have been 4-1 against them during the year and it will be a tough battle without one of the five best players in the world playing. Will Damian Lillard and Co. step up to the plate?

Cleveland Cavaliers - Is this the ‘last hurrah’ for Donovan Mitchell as a Cavalier?

All eyes are on the Cavaliers’ playoff run this season to gain ground after a disappointing finish last year. Can they keep soon-to-be free agent Donovan Mitchell happy enough? Or will another disappointing playoff exit lead him to bolt out of town to find another opportunity to win elsewhere? 

Much of this will be attributed to the growth of their current core to gauge their improvements from last season. Will Darius Garland have enough juice to handle the scoring load outside of Mitchell as well as holding his own defensively? Will Evan Mobley display or unlock another offensive level in his game to be able to contribute on the offensive end to complement his defensive capabilities? Will Jarett Allen beat the allegations of lights were too bright in the playoffs in his second time around and bounce back from what has been a bad series against the Knicks last year? And is Max Strus the answer for the Cavs to advance into the second round with his spacing and shooting at the wing to give space for Mitchell to attack?

With his impending free agency, Donovan Mitchell has a big decision to make during the offseason. Will he stay and extend with this Cavaliers team who gave up assets for him? The Cavaliers have made some strides from being a young team with potential to a top 4-5 team in the East when they acquired Donovan Mitchell two years ago from the Utah Jazz. Since then, Mitchell has elevated their play and in turn, they got back to their first playoffs without LeBron James on the team.

However, rumors have been swirling that Mitchell wants to achieve postseason success, whether in this team or not. Some of these reportedly said that if the Cavs do not make the Finals this season, he might find another home elsewhere to chase that goal. Throughout his career, Mitchell has been to the first round multiple times but has been in the second round just twice. He has yet to make a conference finals appearance, and this postseason with the Cavs will determine if he falls short of that goal again.

Helping Mitchell this time around are shooters that the Cavs lacked a year ago, with Max Strus, Sam Merill, and Georges Niang now in the fold for the team. Cleveland got exposed by New York in just five games last year and it was basically because of their inability to space the floor around Mitchell and point guard Darius Garland. Now with an improved Garland, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen all having a year to work on their games for this stretch, the Cavs aim to make the conference finals — before Mitchell’s impending big decision in free agency.

Orlando Magic - How far can their youth and inexperience take them in the playoffs?

Being the youngest playoff team in the East's playoff field, the Magic come in with no expectations at hand. This young group has overachieved for the season having the fourth-best defense despite them being the 4th youngest team in the league. Making the playoffs has already been a huge accomplishment, but winning a series would not be so bad and would be a welcome sight for the team. 

Nobody expected them to be in the hunt for the top seeds in the East, but here they are in their first playoff experience as a group as the fifth seed. This is only year 2 and 3 for young stars Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner and they could only get better as years progress. This is only the beginning for Orlando and they could be a difficult fixture in the East for years to come.

Indiana Pacers - How big of an impact will Pascal Siakam be in the postseason?

Right after the trade to bring Siakam to Indiana, fans and basketball analysts alike mentioned how the trade was a win for Indiana and that Siakam’s value would be seen through in the playoffs. When the game slows down and teams are more equipped and prepared for their defenses, teams would need solid execution on their half-court offense.

This was where Siakam was supposed to come in, and now that it’s here, will he be able to step up and lead the Pacers to a series win? The 2019 champion with the Raptors has played 41 games with Indiana this season after the trade, and he has averaged 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.7 assists on 55/39/70 shooting splits and he has given the Pacers a new dimension on offense. The Pacers who will go up against the Bucks for their first-round playoff series, have gone 4-1 against them – but it was all without Siakam. The question for them now is, how will they maintain the level of success they had vs the Bucks now that Siakam is in the rotation? Will Siakam end up being the ceiling-raiser for the postseason for them? Or could he end up disrupting the rhythm that the team had in the regular season vs the Bucks?

Philadelphia - Is this finally the year they advance with Nick Nurse at the helm?

The Sixers have had a lot of heartbreak over the years, from not being able to make the Conference Finals in Joel Embiid’s career to choking multiple times in the playoffs, it's just disaster after disaster when it matters the most in the City of Brotherly Love.

However, they hope the outcome is going to come out differently this year due to one factor: Nick Nurse.

The 2019 champion coach has given the Sixers a lot to hope for with a breath of fresh air surrounding the team on offensive and defensive execution. This year, with Embiid being better than ever (being even better than last year’s MVP campaign) and with the help of Nurse’s diverse offensive sets, the Sixers’ title chances have increased significantly. Coach Nurse having the ability to make adjustments on the fly and push the right buttons will be a major weapon for the Sixers for their upcoming playoff run.

When healthy this year, Embiid has had one of the most dominant regular seasons in NBA history, averaging 34.7 points, 11 rebounds, and 5.6 assists. The Sixers have a 31-8 record when he plays, which would equal the best win-pace mark in the league. He now has a dynamic sidekick in Tyrese Maxey who has been named an all-star this year, and general manager Daryl Morey has surrounded them with capable role players to complement their skill sets. Will Nurse be the final piece that puts all of the Sixers together?

Miami Heat - Can they rediscover their old magic against the Celtics, but this time without Jimmy Butler?

At this point, people got to understand and realize that playoff Jimmy is a real thing. The dude just turns it up when it matters the most and the lights are at their brightest, and has carried Miami every time in the postseason.

However, this year figures out to be an entirely different scenario with Butler being out with an injury. According to reports, Butler could be sidelined for multiple weeks due to an MCL sprain — devastating news for Miami ahead of their upcoming playoff matchup vs Boston. 

The Heat have faced the Celtics three times over the past four seasons, and they have beaten them twice. All those games and series featured a lot of Butler carrying them to wins.

Without Butler though, things have changed dramatically fast. Now, the question stands: will they have enough to defeat their old nemesis (who’s become the most dominant team in the league) sans their best player?

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