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The 10 Biggest Post-Christmas Questions in the Eastern Conference

Will LeBron ever slow down? Will Ben Simmons win Rookie of the Year? These are the most interesting topics still lingering in the East.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the Christmas slate behind us, the NBA season has truly begun. Here’s a look at the 10 topics in the Eastern Conference that we’re most interested in over the next four months of the regular season. Next week, we’ll do the West.


1. What Are the Bulls?

You probably know the gist by now: One Bulls player was punched in the face by another. Said punchee then became one of the best offensive players in the NBA. And all of a sudden the Bulls are pretty good. A classic tale, indeed.

So … what do we do with all of this?

Despite a 9-2 record since Mirotic’s return, Chicago still has almost twice as many losses than wins on the season. In other words, the Bulls have played like the Warriors but are still tied with the Hornets in the East standings. If the law of averages on Mirotic’s shooting (47.5 percent from 3!)—or Mirotic being traded altogether—don’t crash the Bulls back down to earth, the burden of a 3-20 start sure will. For instance, ESPN’s BPI still projects Chicago to finish with the fourth-fewest wins in the league.

But if they hold on to Mirotic, and Zach LaVine indeed returns next month, the Bulls could find themselves in the Kristaps Zone—i.e., too good for their own good. Any internet user or participant of the 2013-14 Suns would caution against reading too much into a few middle-of-the-season victories and remind you that being as bad as possible is Chicago’s best route back to sustained success.

I’ll offer a counterargument: This is fun. Watching Kris Dunn rise from Tom Thibodeau’s scrap heap of players incapable of immediately playing 40 minutes into a serviceable two-way point guard is fun. Watching Mirotic—who, lest we forget, literally got knocked TFO by his teammate—knock down 3s like Steph Curry is fun. Watching Mirotic interact with Bobby Portis is fun/uncomfortable.

Besides, it’s easier to call out “Tank!” than it is to live out the day-to-day repercussions of it. I covered two bad Pelicans teams, and by the end of each season, the air was thick with moroseness. After one loss late last season, one player openly talked in the locker room, within earshot of a few team personnel members, about wanting to play elsewhere next season. A few days earlier, after a coach mustered up a rah-rah speech about not yet being officially eliminated from playoff contention, another player made a joking aside about the season already being over.

It’s hard to quantify culture or the carryover effect from one season to another—New Orleans is above-.500 this season, though still more of a slog than you’d expect from a pace-and-space offense showcasing two of the most skilled big men in history—but losing isn’t always a E-Z Pass to contention. Just ask the Magic.

2. Is Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons’s to Lose?

Simmons burst onto th—

Simmons, technically in his first season after sitting out 2016-17, is av—

Simmo—

So. Donovan Mitchell. With Utah’s cadre of oft-injured wings unable to slide into Gordon Hayward’s go-to role, Rudy Gobert hurt, and Ricky Rubio stuck in some sexy alternate universe that swaps his best offensive skill (career low in assists) for his worst (career high in 3-point attempts), Mitchell, the no. 13 overall pick, has shot, scored, and been received like a superstar in the month of December. The Jazz might not be good (two wins in their past 12 games), but Mitchell is: In December, he’s averaging 22.6 points on 50 percent shooting (including 36 percent from 3).

Simmons, meanwhile, continues to contribute across the board, but you can no longer argue that he has an advantage in team success. It’s probably unfair to pin the Sixers’ 15-win season (i.e., the same as Utah) to a player who is still a net positive (1.6 net rating), but Philly’s 1-7 record without Joel Embiid on the floor will surely be used against him.

So will this: Adjust for the the extra six minutes that Simmons plays per game, and Mitchell looks even better—per 36 minutes, the Jazz rookie’s scoring average jumps from 17.9 to 21.1, which would rank 19th in the entire league. And while Simmons shoots as efficiently as a center, he also rarely shoots away from the basket like a center, which at the very least has begun to complicate his (and his team’s) approach.

You’d expect the Sixers, a team with few major holes (health willing) and plenty of assets to fix the ones it has, to have an easier path to a playoff berth, which in turn would tip the scales in Simmons’s favor. But those expectations—along with the ones thrust upon him through his draft slot, the ongoing LeBron comparisons, and that extra year to absorb the NBA game—almost make it harder for Simmons to impress you. Mitchell’s highlight dunks may be empty calories, but they force you to take notice. And once you do, you that see his body of work is better than anyone else’s.

Well, almost everyone’s …

3. How Is Jayson Tatum Still Doing This?

Tatum, a 19-year-old who weighs “205 pounds,” is shooting 51.4 percent from the floor and 48.7 percent from 3, and qualifies as a top-10 defender at his position in real plus-minus.

Please advise.

4. How Much Can the Sixers Lean on Embiid?

From here on out, all Sixers broadcasts should probably be accompanied by an Embiid pain chart. Despite All-Star–level production in a win over the Knicks on Christmas Day, Embiid has appeared to be in orange-frowny territory in the two games he’s played after missing three straight because of a back injury. The second/fourth-year center looked sluggish in 34 minutes of action on Monday, and whether that’s a result of the back injury, a lack of conditioning because he’s not practicing, or something else, there were enough grimaces to raise alarms in Philadelphia instead of cats. (Also alarming: The Sixers recently gave up a second-rounder to add another big man.)

Outside of a dramatic leap by Simmons, any prolonged absence from Embiid would likely derail the Sixers’ bid to jump from the bottom of the East to the bottom of the East playoff standings in just one year. (If that matters at all for a young team clearly still figuring things out.) In addition to the aforementioned paltry 1-7 record sans Embiid, Philly has a 100.6 offensive rating and 107.7 defensive rating this season without its antagonistic giant on the court, which is roughly as good as the Bulls. (Which, in this context, is still bad.)

5. When Will Markelle Fultz Play Basketball?

I can’t take much more of this shit.

6. Can the Wizards Return to Contender Status in the East?

It remains to be seen if the Wizards, a team that apparently runs on the liquefied saltiness discharged by John Wall, can play as well as they did in a Christmas win over the Celtics. (Wednesday’s result would indicate otherwise.) But Monday’s performance was at least a reminder of what they’re capable of at full strength. The Wiz at their peak, barring a trade, are probably still a tier below the Cavs and Celtics, but the internal development of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. is very real and can make a very big difference in a series—especially if, say, the Isaiah Thomas Experiment doesn’t live up to the hype (… that Thomas himself is creating with Bruckheimer-esque films and then blaming on the media).

Washington’s small-ball unit (Wall, Beal, Porter, Kelly Oubre Jr., Marcin Gortat) is low-key frightening—21.1 net rating in 174 minutes. And if Gortat can’t keep up with a stretchier lineup (say, Cleveland’s starters, who feature Kevin Love at “center”), swap Markieff Morris in and the net rating dips only slightly to 14.0, albeit in a 25-minute sample.

The Pistons are cursed and without Reggie Jackson for the next two months. The Celtics have taken a half-step back, from great to very good, since a 16-2 start. Toronto has hurt us too many times to be trusted. Could a deadline deal—Sixth Man Kemba Walker!—push D.C. into that elusive East finals?

7. Can Giannis Regain Footing in the MVP Race?

The steady stream of Giannis-related digital content has slowly become less focused on his in-game exploits and more on his adorable family. (Kostas is getting so big, you guys!) Even as Antetokounmpo continues to churn out MVP-level production, the momentum behind his candidacy has seized up. He’s on the accelerated Anthony Davis track—he rose to prominence in a flurry of exclamatory tweets, fell almost out of sight as the losses piled up, and settled into a safe middle ground after his team traded for a high-level running mate, all within the first 32 games of the season.

Antetokounmpo’s way out of narrative purgatory is similarly blunt: win. But without the ability to directly set up his lesser offensive teammates at an elite level, like James Harden did last season, or a teammate to match his elite production, as Kevin Durant had in 2013-14, Giannis may be stuck on the other side of a glass ceiling keeping him from the top two, maybe three spots in the league’s hierarchy.

8. Will LeBron Slow Down?

Predicting LeBron’s falloff, both for this season and for his entire career, will most likely become another NBA goose chase. But unlike the Spurs, a team that can augment and add on the fly—a spare Dejounte to replace a broken Tony here, a Slo-Mo Kawhi for a Regular Kawhi there—LeBron is, ostensibly, a human person at the mercy of time. And while James is one of the few players who could all of a sudden become a plus shooter in his 15th season, this level of efficiency (61.3 eFG%), at this volume (18.9 attempts per game), at this age (almost 33) is simply unprecedented.

Then there’s the workload. Maybe LeBron, who’s been messaging that—and playing like—he’s going after one final MVP from the jump, made a conscious decision to play enough games (35 out of 35) and minutes (37.4, tied for second in the NBA) to ensure that he remains in the conversation. Maybe he’ll throttle back once Thomas returns. Or maybe pushing up the start date of the season was enough to bypass the few DNP-Rest days that James indulged in last season (and that, as a result, caused such a furor). It just feels like there should be a correction coming, even as LeBron openly flouts that very concept.

“Hopefully I can break the mold, so when the next guy comes, he can still get $200 [million] or $300 million and be 33 years old,” he said on December 17. “I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break. It’s not just about me, it’s for the next crew, as well ... I’ll be 33 in 15 days. This is my 15th season, and this is the best I’ve felt in my career. I want it all.”

9. How Good Will Brooklyn/the Brooklyn Pick Be?

Don’t look now, but the Nets are on the cusp of averageness. Brooklyn, at 12-22, is tied with Charlotte, Chicago, and Sacramento for the sixth-worst record in the NBA. Without any incentive to dip below that pace, and with their best player’s return recently estimated at two weeks away, the Nets could easily wind up playing spoiler over the second half—to teams looking to sneak into the playoffs and to the Cavs, who own their first-round pick (via the Celtics).

Even if the Nets finish seventh from the bottom, as ESPN currently projects, the calculus in Cleveland’s front office starts to get very interesting. Would you rather have a 6 percent chance at a top-three pick or half a season of DeAndre Jordan (and his Bird rights)? What about Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, and the chance to dump some salary? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dwight Howard?

I’m not sure any of those are worth it for the Cavs, but the opportunity to dramatically alter the second half of the season for the entire league is right there for them.

10. Where Were You When You Became a Hezonjite?

Here are the stat lines of two lottery picks from the 2015 draft over their past five games:

Player A: 16.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 49.2 FG%, 44.4 3P%
Player B: 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 35.6 FG%, 26.1 3P%

One of these players is Kristaps Porzingis, the no. 4 pick in 2015, and one is Mario Hezonja, the no. 5 pick.

Player A is Hezonja.

Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.